This research paper will discuss the exhibits of both Detroit Historical Museum (DHM) and the Wright Museum of African American History (WM) and interpret the experience as a first time visitor (myself but with some knowledge from the course) with no prior knowledge of Underground Railroad (UGRR).
This critical analysis will evaluate the DHM and WM programs and displays with respect to their intent as well as their ability to present facts and materials in understandable manner to a first time visitor. It will also touch a bit on topics discussed in assignment sheet -the overall effect of museum promoting the real knowledge of Underground Railroad. Recommendations to museum to improve public’s understanding of the topic and also Blights question “keeping the long view. However this research is focused more on the experience of the first time visitor with little or no prior knowledge. The following pages will analyse more on the critical issue of learning and knowledge of Underground Railroad through the historical facts and display of each museum and its effect on general public.Order now
There are many different definitions of museum but will state one here from the most common site to access Wikipedia.
“An institution that cares for (conserves) a collection of articles and other objects of science, artistic, cultural or historical importance, and makes them available for public viewing through exhibits, that may be permanent, or temporary.” (www.wikipedia.org)
As a first time visitor you will probably not find most of the key words like articles, objects and collection in DHM or WH museum of historical significance in relation to Underground Railroad and to your surprise but was the reason of success of Underground Railroad.
A network of secret routes and safe houses used by the runaway slaves of African descent in United States to escape to Canada or northern Free states with the help of abolitionists black or white who believed slavery was wrong.
UGRR was the first civil right movement in United States and has a great success rate due to its secretive nature. It brought thousands of black salves to freedom. UGRR movement was so successful that it scared the slave owners and the congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. This allowed the slave owners to re capture their slaves but this shed more light to the brutal conditions of the southern slaves to north and led to Civil War. All the power given to slave owners still was not able to stop this civil right movement.
Instead more and more people from different religious groups like Baptists, Methodists, Quakers, started supporting UGRR with the belief that men are equal in the eyes of god. Many whites helped the slaved blacks fled to freedom. John Rankin and Levi Coffin are some famous Christians who held a lot in UGRR movement.
Free Blacks like Harriet Tubman the legend of UGRR after escaping herself, helped escape many other black slaves. John Parker, William Still are few other famous people of the same fraternity who helped escape many black slaves by risking their life again and again.
As UGRR was a secret and displayed in both the museums exhibits, therefore will analyse and discuss how this historical data is presented. Both the museums have their exhibits displayed in very professional manner with details of certain objectives in mind.
However, after taking the Underground Railroad course itself and having prior knowledge even though the first time visitor my experience was different then what I expected and the experience of first time visitor with no prior knowledge would be even more different. Now, further discussion is based on first time visitor with no knowledge and first time visitor with some knowledge as comparison for both the museum.
The Wright museum of African American History was opened in 1965 by Charles H Wright and holds World’s the largest permanent exhibit on African American culture. (www.wikipedia.org)
The Struggle against slavery is the exhibit of Wright museum and beside curators and exhibit itself there are several options available online on their website for further education on Underground Railroad which is available prior or post visit to museum for reference and understanding. “The Underground Railroad in History and Memory” is part of the exhibit and is collaborative effort of the Wright museum and Dr. Roy Finkenbine, a UDM professor. This online part of the exhibit is very detailed with videos and pictures of all famous Underground Railroad activists. ( www.ugrronline.com)
Although all the information is available on this site but I have base my research on my personal opinion where I was not aware of any of these tools. I had some knowledge about UGRR being a history student at UDM taking Underground Railroad summer class and also on behalf of the first time visitor with no knowledge about the UGRR or the tools available on www.ugrronline.com.
I do realize that Wright museum is the largest museum of African American history and their objective is to display the culture and condition (good or bad) of African American of that time period .In my personal opinion Wright museum did commendable job when it comes to display of African American culture but fails to discuss and celebrate the success of UGRR movement completely unless the intend was to get the success part of UGRR movement information from their website in order to encourage use of technical tools. As a first time visitor of museum I was like white clean piece of paper with no knowledge at all what to expect and how is the information delivered to you.
When I entered the museum and started exploring the first display was of the ship where the condition of the black salves is shown painful and horrible. This gave me shivers to see how thousands of blacks were tortured and were made to sleep in such dark tight spots in the ship. Blacks had suffered a lot no doubt to the point that they got rebellious and led to the UGRR movement.
Wright museum did a great job when it comes to displaying the conditions of the slaved blacks prior to UGRR but I don’t think they were able to tell clearly the story and success of UGRR movement and how it got started. Wright museum did meet the objective of showing the miserable conditions of the black slaves but failed to celebrate the success of UGRR. Now with some knowledge about UGRR from my course I caught that as a set back and missing information but as a complete new visitor with no prior knowledge at all and not keen to explore to web as a new visitor I would fail to understand what is exactly UGRR with this kind of display Therefore, Wright museum according to my opinion was not effective in explaining the UGRR movement.
Clarence M burton a historian and attorney donated his collection to Detroit Public library and using his influence and some other help established the Detroit Historical Society in 1921 and further over period of time got established to Detroit Historical Museum on 5401 Woodward Ave. (www.wikipedia.org)
“The Doorway to Freedom” exhibit opened in this museum in 2012 displaying the true story UGRR and Detroit’s role in it. City of Detroit was the end of the line for runaway slaves where they feel safe in the promised land of the North. After the Fugitive Act of 1850 not only the runaway slaves but also the free blacks were losing their freedom as the slave catchers were roaming in every street of the city. At this point freedom to the north took a new meaning and Canada became the Promised Land to which Detroit responded in kind.
The Doorway to freedom exhibit displayed UGRR movement without any historical artifacts as not much is available due to the secretive nature of the UGRR movement.
Although Detroit museum was still successful in giving the required experience by narrating a story of journey to north through lightening effects, audios “…psst…here” being an example. They used some visuals but mostly the placards with important information that relates to the dangers of the journey. This exhibit was successful in displaying both the horrific conditions of the slaves and the secretive nature of the journey, the important people involved thorough the passage display they made and the placards.
All the information is on the walls in the form of cards with few but effective words describing everything from the miserable conditions of the slaves, their journey as runaway slaves, kind of tools they used “The North star” and effectively depicted their journey and the success of reaching the Promised Land- Canada.
When you start to explore the exhibit after few steps it takes you to the complete darkness with woody smell and rustling of leaves is what all you can hear. This made me feel like a fugitive slave. I imagined myself as fugitive slave running away from my master towards freedom but with no idea where to go except follow the drinking gourd north to the promise land, looking for the North Star up in the sky full of darkness. I followed through the exhibit feeling a range of emotions. Reading the placards long the side with instructions and hearing the audios made me feel like I am fugitive slave running away to freedom seeking help of total strangers instructing me how a safe house looks and when to get in – “…when you get close to next town, you’ll see a white farmhouse with blue door. Boots will be on porch, if pointing left it’s not safe- if pointing right, it’s safe. Go to the back door, you will find food, and may be a bed for night. Good luck.”(Placard, Doorway to Freedom, DHM).
Similar placards also describing how fugitive slaves crossed river Jordan and reached Canada-Promised Land. There were items like cement mile markers, feed bags all generic in nature but were things found in 1850 in many small towns. This gave me the feeling of being on some farm or small town. The exhibit has the legendry names and places available to from the UGRR. This place was not even half the size of the Wright Museum but to me gave same secretive experience of UGRR that Wright museum had been missing.
Although both museum don’t have any display on the legends like Harriet Tubman and doesn’t mention much about the contributions of white people in UGRR movement is little disappointing to me but overall Detroit museum gave me the experience a new visitor would need to understand UGRR.
To my belief keeping the long view by Blight meant to keep in mind the struggle of the UGRR movement and people involved and never fall back in the shackles of racism. Learning and studying UGRR should mean keep in mind always the ethical and moral values and treat each other with equality and respect regardless of religion, race or color. The real lesson Blight wants us to understand by keeping long view is to be tolerant, open minded and ethical all thorough our lives.
Detroit Historical Museum: Placard, Doorway to Freedom
Detroit Historical Museum: Content development Brochure