By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer
It's a museum, yet it has collected fewer than 100 historic artifacts.
The north side of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
(Tony Jones photo)
It's a research facility, yet it doesn't have a significant archive to draw scholars.
It's an educational center, yet its library has only 800 books.
It's a monument to the past, yet a place for shaping the future.
Eight years after they started planning and two months before the grand opening, founders of the $110 million National Underground Railroad Freedom Center still are trying to explain what the center is and what they want it to be.
The answer is important. Establishing a clear identity now is crucial to attracting the visitors the center needs to survive.
Executive director Spencer Crew says the center is all of the above: An unconventional hybrid combining features of a museum, research lab and learning space. A place where theme-park special effects will pull kids in and a serious message will keep adults coming back.
"People will find that we're different," says Crew, former director of the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of American History. "It's a chance to break out of the bounds of traditional museum presentation."
He says the center's mission is to tell the stories of those who have fought for freedom throughout history, from the Underground Railroad in America to the Solidarity movement in Poland.
But that's a lot of ground to cover. It means the center must be interesting and entertaining enough to draw a projected 260,000 visitors a year without compromising the historical value of its exhibits, which some scholars already view warily.
At the same time, the center must find a way to distinguish itself from dozens of other institutions with African-American themes that have opened - or soon will open - across the country.
"There are African-American museums popping up all over the place," says Edward Hill, author of three books on urban development and an economics professor at Cleveland State University.
"The upside is the Freedom Center has a great story to tell," he says. "But is it going to be a draw?"
Marketing is key
Freedom Center officials have built a state-of-the-art facility, with grand vistas of Cincinnati's riverfront and walls of carved Italian stone.
But before they ever started building, the center's founders spent years listening to focus groups and talking to peers about how to make the project a success.
They heard the same thing again and again: Clearly explain what the center is, or few people will buy $12 tickets to see it.
"My advice to them was to answer the 'why' question," recalls Sara Bloomfield, director of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. "You have to ask yourself, 'Why are we doing this, and who are we doing it for?' "
Center officials say millions of dollars in donated advertising will soon put the center and its slogan - "The power of one voice" - in newspapers and on radio around the world.
Other museum directors agree that a marketing campaign is essential, but say that could be tricky for an institution with such a broad mission.
"I'm sure they'll do it wonderfully," says Dennis Barrie, former director of Cincinnati's Contemporary Arts Center and former president of Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. "But history without some angle is a hard sell."
Barrie runs Cleveland's Malrite Co., a firm specializing in the creation of for-profit museums. Its successful Spy Museum in Washington has drawn 1.5 million visitors in two years and is a model of how to define and market a museum.
"The Spy Museum is a history museum, but it has the hook of spying and secrecy," Barrie says. "It's sexy, and most history museums are not sexy."
Although the Freedom Center's subject matter is more serious, Barrie says it, too, must find a niche. "Marketing," he says, "will be the key to its success."
The first step is establishing a clear identity.
"There's a branding that goes on when you open an institution. Some of them catch on, some don't," says Jay Hakes, director of the Carter Presidential Library and Museum in Atlanta. "People need to know why you're there and what you do. Everybody struggles with that."
Freedom Center officials agree - to a point. They're launching a public relations blitz now, but they expect it will take some time to establish an identity.
For now, center officials frequently emphasize different aspects of the center's mission. Some describe it as a "learning center," others as an instrument for social change. Crew sees it as a "21st-century cultural institution."
"It's about a lot of ideas, coalescing around freedom," he says. "We're trying to make the past relevant to the present."
Bloomfield says that's a challenge for institutions that deal in ideas, like the Holocaust Museum and Freedom Center.
"There's a lot of abstract notions that get dealt with in our museum," Bloomfield says. "I'm interested in how they're going to do that."
More action, fewer artifacts
One of the first things visitors to the center will see is the Kentucky slave pen, which has been rebuilt just inside the main entrance.
It's the center's most impressive artifact, and it packs the most emotional wallop. The iron ring that once held chained slaves still hangs from a rafter. Documents and wanted posters from the slave trade are among the other artifacts.
Mostly, though, exhibits emphasize interaction over actual artifacts: high-definition videos, composite stories of runaway slaves and rooms that evoke the cramped quarters of slave ships.
In the "environmental theater," visitors will watch a film depicting a slave's nighttime escape across the Ohio River. Mist rises from the floor, trees rustle in the wind and bullets seem to whiz by.
The goal is to instruct and entertain at the same time. "I don't think any of these things are mutually exclusive," Crew says. "Being about education doesn't mean it can't be enjoyable."
For well over a decade, museums and education centers have embraced that concept, shifting their focus from objects behind glass to exhibits that allow people to participate.
"People nowadays want entertainment," says William Billingsley, executive director of the African American Museum Association. "And it has to be kid-friendly."
But some historians worry the center's approach may sell the public short.
"I'm not all that hopeful for the Freedom Center," says Walker Gollar, a Xavier University history professor who has consulted with center officials. "I think their historical basis is a little weak."
He says the center's presentation of history seems superficial because it lacks supporting artifacts, documents and stories from real people. "It's unfortunate," Gollar says, "because the real stories about the Underground Railroad are incredible."
Crew says the center will tell history well and accurately, but he acknowledges there is more to be done.
He hopes the center eventually will work overseas to advance the cause of freedom, similar to what the Carter Center in Atlanta does with its humanitarian efforts. And he wants to expand the archive and library so the center will be identified with serious research, like the Holocaust Museum.
To do that, the center will need more than movies and special effects.
The Carter Center has 150 full-time employees dedicated to overseas programs, and the Holocaust Museum has 10,500 artifacts, 25 million pages of archival material and 80,000 photographs.
"If they want to be a serious research facility, they're going to need more," says Christopher Phillips, a history professor at the University of Cincinnati who specializes in the study of slavery.
"A museum is only as good as the physical artifacts it has," he says.
Phillips says he's optimistic the center's approach will work. But he says the emotional power of history is most strongly felt when real stories and artifacts are combined with interactivity.
One exhibit at the Holocaust Museum consists of nothing more than a pile of shoes worn by people on their way to the death camps. The museum has plenty of video and high-tech exhibits, but few exhibits get more attention than the shoes.
"When you walk out of that museum," Phillips says, "you've really felt the experience."
Finding an audience
No matter what kind of exhibits go into the center, it will be defined at least in part by the community around it. Racial tensions still run high in some places, and the city's national image still bears scars from three days of riots in 2001.
Outside museum directors say the center must convince skeptical outsiders that Cincinnati is the right place for a facility dedicated to freedom. And it must convey to an often-divided local population that it is a place for everyone, regardless of race.
"It needs to maintain a broad appeal in order to survive," says Kimberly Camp, former president of the Museum of African American History in Detroit. "What happens with African-American institutions is you get the attitude that, 'Oh, that's a museum that black people go to.' "
Crew says fighting that perception is a priority. He says the story of slavery and African-American history is just the start of a conversation about the fight for freedom everywhere, from Tiananmen Square to the former Soviet bloc.
It's a conversation he hopes will have relevance to all Cincinnatians, as well as to visitors from around the world.
"We're working hard to have people see this as an institution for all people," Crew says.
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