By Marilyn Bauer
Enquirer staff writer
After 10 years of planning, 27 months of construction and more than $100 million, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center opens today at 11 a.m.
A grand-opening celebration is scheduled for Aug. 23.
IF YOU GO
Grand opening and other events
The Freedom Center will open today to the public, but its "official" grand opening is Aug. 23. Events that day, which are free and open to the public, will include:
9-11 a.m.: Book signing of Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory (Smithsonian Books; $39.95) by the book's editor David W. Blight.
Noon -6:30 p.m.: Festival of Freedom featuring dance, music, storytelling and demonstrations from around the world.
6:30-7:30 p.m.: Grounds for Freedom Procession. Freedom organizations will march and bring soil from their locations to add to the center's grounds.
7:30-10 p.m.: Public dedication and lighting of the Flame of Freedom. Remarks by local and international guests, celebrities.
Other upcoming events:
Aug. 24: The life and times of Harriet Tubman: Author and historian Catherine Clinton discusses her new book on one of the most famous women to move along the Underground Railroad. 7 p.m., $10 members/$12 non-members.
Sept. 18: Freedom Suite Music Series kickoff: Buster Williams "Something More" Quartet. 8 p.m., $35-$40.
Sept. 21: Disposable People: Kevin Bales, of Free the Slaves, discusses modern slavery. 7 p.m., $10 members/$12 non-members.
All events are at the Freedom Center. Ticket information: call 333-7500 or go to www.freedomcenter.org.
If you go
What: National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
Where: 50 E. Freedom Way, downtown.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Closed Mondays, Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.
Admission: $12 for adults ages 13-59; $8 for children ages 6-12; $10 for students with I.D. and for seniors age 60 and over.
Membership: $40 for individuals; $55 for "Individual plus One" (same household); $30 for seniors age 60-plus and students/educators; $65 for family up to four (add $15 for each additional family member age 6-17).
Group tours: 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
Information: (513) 333-7500 or www.freedomcenter.org.
Parking: Central Riverfront Garage under the Freedom Center: $4; some above-ground lots surrounding the center: $4.
Dining: North Star Cafe is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. Menu includes salads, sandwiches, snacks, breakfast items, soups, children's items, daily specials.
Miscellaneous: Wheelchairs are available with $10 refundable deposit. Strollers are available for a $10 refundable deposit and $2 fee. Personal listening devices to help the hearing impaired are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Coat check is 50 cents; two coats a hanger.
"The dream I've had practically every night for 10 years is now real," Freedom Center president Ed Rigaud said. "I can't believe it's happening. It is a wonderful place. Yet I'm afraid to wake up and find that it isn't real."
The 158,000-square-foot facility is real enough. The distinctive copper and travertine building on the northern bank of the Ohio River is the largest museum dedicated to the Underground Railroad.
But the center is not only about the past. Five hundred years of world history are represented in innovative exhibits, interactive information stations and the chance to get involved with worldwide organizations dedicated to putting an end to the modern day enslavement of 27 million people.
"I believe visitors to the Freedom Center will be provoked, in a positive way, about their understanding of the word freedom," said board member Paul Bernish. "Nothing but good can come from the experience."
That experience is divided between two floors and includes films, historic recreations, artifacts and a dialogue installation where guests can discuss what they have seen or what they can do to make a difference.
"It's edgy," said Rob Morgan, design director for Jack Rouse Associates and creator of the exhibits. "And emotional. People will experience high highs and low lows."
Startling slave pen
Visitors enter the building on the riverfront side, walking directly into the expansive Welcome Hall, where the center's most important artifact, an 1830 slave pen found at a Northern Kentucky farm, is on exhibit.
Guests may walk into the pen - a startling experience - to imagine what it might have been like to be one of 200 men and women crushed into the small wooden cabin. Some of the shackles that held the men on the second floor are still connected to the center beam.
"People will be struck by the starkness of the slave pen within this ultramodern, sophisticated building," said Morgan. "Once they read the interpretive text, they will feel awe and a sadness for what was lost."
The center estimated it would take six hours to visit every exhibit and watch every film, so a suggested path through history has been laid out that can take visitors through in about an hour.
The experience begins in a theater with a set of animated films that introduce the center's three themes - freedom, unfreedom, the Underground Railroad - under fiber-optic stars configured into constellations as they were at 5:30 a.m. on Jan. 1, 1863, the morning President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
"I hope people will walk away with a true sense of our purpose," said Rita Morgan, director of exhibits and collections.
Learn past, elevate future
The idea for the Freedom Center came to Chip Harrod, of the National Conference for Community and Justice for Greater Cincinnati, in 1994.
In honor of the organization's 50th anniversary, Harrod proposed putting aside $7,000 to jump-start the creation of a museum dedicated to the Underground Railroad - a landmark he hoped would take attention from strained race relations and focus it on Cincinnati's history of racial cooperation.
The deal was sealed in 1995 when Procter & Gamble came on board. The company provided not only seed money but leadership, by lending Rigaud to be the center's first executive director and CEO.
"This place is home to me," he said.
Spencer Crew, former director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, took over for Rigaud as executive director in 2001.
"The Freedom Center is now alive," said Rigaud. "It is truly a safe house (where we can) learn about our past and elevate our future."
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