Stories from the Road: Underground Railroad Museum - Cincinnati, OH (March 20, 2018)
With the amount of white people wandering around, this could be any museum. It could be any museum in a seemingly new and shiny building in the up and coming part of any city. But it’s not. It’s the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, OH, which, could probably be named the National Slavery Freedom Center without changing any of the exhibits. I knew that a museum about the Underground Railroad would obviously have to include a piece about slavery, but as I walked through the halls, lined with bronze statues and life-size models, I wasn’t just seeing history through the redemptive eyes of freedom.
When I envisioned the museum, I was picturing a museum on the smaller side, focused mostly on the most famous of the Underground Railroad conductors and some new faces. I was imagining exhibits about different famous routes and daring escapes. The stories that allow a white person like me to imagine myself brave and ignore the more graphic nature of the horror of the time. Maybe this is an intentional branding move. Maybe the museum wants people like to me to come to the museum so the learning opportunity then presents itself. I wouldn’t blame them if they did. The people who most need an idea are usually the most reticent.
Whether or not the white people around me came with the same expectations, we were all walking through the same exhibit. Except, I was noticing a lot of talking amongst them. This is not to say that I prefer my museums like libraries; I fully support people talking and processing what they are looking at. I am certainly guilty of that. But, based on their body language and casual disinterest in the exhibit, it didn’t seem like they were processing. It honestly seemed like they were bored.
Now, the best among my friends would remind me that people process in different ways and that my perception of the situation is not necessarily reality. And that is all true. But, through the entire exhibit, from the beginnings of the Transatlantic Slave Trade all the way through the election of Rutherford B. Hayes, none of those people looked interested. There is definitely a point to be made that looking at objects through museum glass and reading paragraphs of exhibit material can be somewhat numbing. It can be hard to truly engage with the object, or subject matter, and understand it in an emotional context. But, this is not a problem unique to this one museum. That is an issue felt by most museums, at least ones set up in the traditional sense.
Also, certainly this is not the only museum that has ever seen bored patrons. Visit any museum and you’re likely to find people who were dragged there by others who look completely enthralled. But, this seems to be a special type of museum where it seems inappropriate to be bored. At least, outwardly. Having been to the Holocaust Museum in D.C. many times, I’ve never seen anyone walking through the exhibits blatantly bored and laughing about a tangential comment to their friend. People seem to inherently understand that as distasteful when they are standing underneath a reproduction of the gate at Auschwitz. Why is it any different when standing in front of a glass full of chains used for human bondage?
I can’t help but wonder if racism is part of it. At least, in terms of racism that is bred through familiarity. Slavery is a topic that continues to be relevant to our national conversation, and with good reason. Racism stemming from that time continues to be a systemic issue that current white people are implicated in. Not so with the Holocaust. When white Americans visit the Holocaust Museum, their feelings of sympathy and horror are free from guilt. There are no complicated layers.
In terms of these people that I don’t know, maybe I should cut them a break. At least they showed up. At least they paid the entrance fee and walked the exhibit – it’s probably more than most visitors to Cincinnati. But is there an inherent danger in letting that familiarity continue to fester? In letting museums and other sites of tragedy become an item checked off a site seeing to-do list? Does it do nothing more than assuage guilt? Going to the museum is not an act worthy of brownie points. Even interacting with it is a low bar to clear. These museums and institutions are there to try to push the conversation forward and change thoughts. If you’re not even somewhat interested in that, then maybe you shouldn’t go. We don’t need any more white people who feel like they are modeling enlightened behavior, only to find out it is only surface level.