What Freedom Means to Me

Today’s Museum Minute is a personal statement regarding my opinion on an institution I support, respect and work for. I hope you’ll indulge me for a moment.

Please note: the text in blue is quoted from, “Freedom: The Need for Courage, Cooperation, & Perseverance as the Struggle Continues,” an article I co-wrote with Dina Bailey, Director of Exhibitions and Collections, and Stephanie Creech, External Relations Manager, featured in Museums of Ideas: Commitment and Conflict.

I work at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center (NURFC) in Cincinnati, Ohio. Yesterday, the NURFC was featured in The Cincinnati Enquirer, in an article titled, “Freedom Center Could Close.” This article has shared the unique challenges this institution – like so many other museums – has faced since its inception, the corrective actions taken, the many achievements reached and what the future holds for the NURFC.

I don’t want to see this place close. Ever. So, I’m going to hop on my Museum Minute soapbox and tell you a little bit about this essential institution and why this place matters.

As our mission states, “We reveals stories about freedom’s heroes, from the era of the Underground Railroad to contemporary times, challenging and inspiring everyone to take courageous steps for freedom today.” That’s one heck of a charge, right? Challenge and inspire! Take courageous steps!

The NURFC opened in August of 2004, three years after the Cincinnati riots of 2001. Yes… Cincinnati had riots in 2001.

This place matters.

As mentioned in previous posts, I have loved museums since I was a kid. I didn’t know or understand back then that people actually “worked” in museums but I always felt at peace amongst the objects and the history that surrounded me. In the spring of 2006, while studying history at the University of Cincinnati, I landed an internship at the NURFC and it was a bit intimidating. I felt so small in the beautiful building, plus the word “national” is a part of its name and I certainly wasn’t an expert about the history inside. This place is where I began my museum career as an intern and where it continues today, as the Creative and Digital Content Manager. In my time here, I have had the pleasure of working with some of the most amazing, passionate and professional people I have ever met and have grown into a museum professional myself.  My personal journey is one small example of the professional impact the NURFC has had.

This place matters.

The NURFC is a one-of-a-kind museum. Its very location on the banks of the Ohio River, “the River Jordan,” is enough to give a person chills. If you stand on the balcony of the second floor and look at the river and into Kentucky you are looking at the narrow divide that separated a free state and a slave state. Runaway slaves, and the heroic conductors that assisted them, crossed that river in all conditions seeking freedom.

This place matters.

Through changing exhibitions, permanent exhibitions and dialogue-focused programming, the NURFC ties the past to the present and encourages visitors to take action today for a better tomorrow. The foundation of the institution is in the history of the Underground Railroad. The legacy of the Underground Railroad, its natural extension the Civil Rights Movement, and more recent victories, e.g., the end of apartheid in South Africa, have the power to inspire and model movements for universal freedom.  In recapturing historic narratives, the NURFC creates an experience of the past that enables people today not only to question historical perceptions, but also to see how “the past is prologue” in resolving contemporary challenges. 

This place matters.

The museum doesn’t stop there. The NURFC’s new groundbreaking, permanent exhibition Invisible: Slavery Today discusses forced labor, child labor, sex trafficking, bonded labor and domestic servitude still occurring around the globe today. Slavery did not end in 1865; it is alive and well in 2011. An estimated 12 – 27 million people are caught in one or another form of slavery.

This place matters.

The emotions experienced at the NURFC are many. I have seen grown men cry and I have seen rambunctious children leave speechless. Any feeling experienced at the NURFC is legitimate and valued. This is a difficult history but let us not forget that the stories shared by the NURFC are a chapter in American history and must not be ignored. It is a history that affects us all. The NURFC isn’t a museum “just about slavery,” this is a museum about the courage, cooperation perseverance and resolve needed to overcome tragedy and injustice. Through this difficult history, this struggle we find freedom and we find hope.

This place matters.

The NURFC is dedicated to changing the world by changing the way we view ourselves and one another so that, together, we can walk in the footsteps of Mandela, Wiesel, Chavez, King, Gandhi and countless other everyday freedom heroes. There is a spark within each of us. We can all fan the flame for love, justice and peace.

This place matters.

I could go on and on and on. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is a vital institution to the city of Cincinnati, the state of Ohio, the United States of America and the global community. I’m not saying there haven’t been missteps along the way. No institution is perfect and the NURFC has not been immune to its own imperfection, however, the stories we tell, the mission we seek to embody and the passion of those souls who work to see the NURFC succeed matters, because this place matters.

What does freedom mean to me? It means everything.

To see this institution fail would be a travesty.

Thank you.

(Stepping off the Museum Minute soapbox.)

14 thoughts on “What Freedom Means to Me

  1. This saddens me beyond belief. It’s so important to have places where we can reflect on our collective history, no matter how shameful. If the stories cease to be told we will never learn from the mistakes of the past and the present. Unfortunately, there is a shocking deficit of safe spaces where we can have this necessary discourse.

    • Thanks for your comment, Adrianne. I couldn’t agree more. The sharing of difficult histories are necessary to heal, to learn and to grow.

  2. This easily tops the many previous attempts by consultants and others to define the Freedom Center’s unique mission and purpose. I think “This Place Matters,” ought to be the museum’s branding statement, because it is clear, understandable and succinct. Well done, Jamie.

  3. This is an excellent posting Jamie on why this site matters. You should consider posting this as a letter to the editor in the Enquirer. The inflated “potential attendance” figures projected by market research firms is an unfortunate trend in the museum industry and continues on to this day. No one really stops to think critically about those reports and the potential damage they do to the institutions. I do hope that the community can find a way to keep this site open – the importance of your site in our ongoing national and international examination of human rights (or lack thereof) can not be denied.

    • Hi, Conny! Thanks for taking the time to check out “What Freedom Means to Me.” This post has been submitted as a letter to the editor and if/when it gets picked up by the Enquirer I will be sure to let you know. Thank you for your suggestion and support!

  4. I was passing through difficult moments in my life! I felt locked up with no hope that tomorrow is going to be a better day! I went to the Freedom Center where I learned about the will power of people, bravery, the power to say no when somthing is unjust . I love this place because it represents me as a human being

  5. I agree with Conny Graft’s suggestion that you send this to the Enquirer editorial page. It is a better justification for the Freedom Center’s existence and survival than any I have read for years.

    • Hi, Paul! “What Freedom Means to Me” has been submitted as a letter to the editor and if/when it gets picked up by the Enquirer I will be sure to let you know. Thank you for your continued support!

  6. I have really enjoyed my experiences with the NURFC, as both patron and guest. This museum sits on the cutting-edge of presentation, utilizing interactive displays in a way unique to its mission. Jamie’s passion is real, and I whole-heartedly agree that this post should be submitted to not only the Enquirer, but also every major newspaper and magazine in the United States. Tourists from all over the world come to Cincinnati just to visit the NURFC. It rests as a jewel in the crown of the Queen City.

    • Hi, Stephen! “What Freedom Means to Me” has been submitted as a letter to the editor and if/when it gets picked up by the Enquirer I will be sure to let you know. Thank you for the kind words – not only as a fellow professional but as a friend!

  7. Jamie,

    Your post raises important issues facing all museums. I believe that a good bit of the answer lies in your previous blog post where “commons” polled so high. That will clearly be the challenge facing nonprofits in the coming years. How will be build sustainable institutions. I am convinced that the sustainability will come in large part through community engagement, where the public moves to see cultural heritage institutions not as expendable luxuries but as integral to the community as the Reds and Bengals.

    I am enjoying a new book called “Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User Generated World” edited by Bill Adair et al. Great discussions on community engagement.

  8. Pingback: Cincinnati Museums Announce Merger « Museum Minute

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