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A visitor center invokes the name of an American hero and educates people about the path to freedom

Tubman Aug18 4

It used to be that a visit to a museum was a walk through glass-lined exhibits where relics and other items of interest sat inertly on display with a little white card of explanation next to them. The modern museum experience, in contrast, is immersive, and visitors are asked to respond with empathy as well as understanding.

When the topic is slavery, though, tackling the emotional component can be overwhelming. The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center achieves that balance of empathy and emotion through a nuanced design and a careful, metaphorical approach.

Tubman's Legacy

Designed by Baltimore-based GWWO Inc./Architects, the center is based in Dorchester County, Md., on the Eastern Shore. It was there that Harriet Tubman lived and, after she escaped north in 1849 to Philadelphia, it was in this area she returned to lead her family and friends north to freedom. She undertook 13 missions and freed nearly 70 people using the series of safehouses and other hideaways that have come to be known as the Underground Railroad.

Alan Reed, FAIA, LEED AP, was the GWWO design principal, and he and his team planned a project that comprised three separate buildings, landscaped grounds and a picnic area. There is an administrative building that is quietly placed behind a stone wall, and beyond that, a picnic area with a heavy-timber pavilion. But it is the visitor center, with its four volumes clad in wood and metal, which draws the eye.

The administrative building and visitor center frame the view north in the midst of an open field. The complex covers 17 acres and is surrounded by the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. Little about the landscape has changed since Tubman’s time, and she would have seen the forest as an initial protective area as she fled north. Visitors can walk toward the woods and encounter a landscaped pathway that allows them to move through the environment. With rises and dips in the path, and small secluded areas, the experience can be similar to what slaves would have encountered on the Underground Railroad.

Visitors enter the center through a main entrance that is between the wood-clad volume and the three metal-clad volumes, laid out in a slightly curved arc. The wood volume houses the public services, such as the gift shop, library and toilets. Its gable roof and wood cladding pick up on the vernacular architecture of the area. Topped with a standing seam metal roof, which was fabricated by Dimensional Metals Inc., Reynoldsburg, Ohio, using panels supplied by RHEINZINK America Inc., Woburn, Mass., the building evokes an agricultural, rural sensibility that brings visitors back to the 19th Century and the Eastern Shore plantations. During Tubman’s time, the area also had a significant timber industry, and the use of wood hints at that period.

Exhibit Area

The exhibit area itself comprises three gableroofed volumes, held together by the spine of a glass-clad, one-story hallway. Chris Elcock, AIA, IIDA, LEED AP, is associate principal at GWWO and the project manager for the center. He says, “The three volumes memorialize the three fates of the enslaved in the region: be sold, stay in fear of being sold or run away.”

Visitors navigating the exhibit will be moving north, offering another empathetic metaphor for the Underground Railroad experience. “The volumes are linked together,” says Elcock, “and the journey north is a metaphor for the Underground Railroad with three stations along the way. Visitors are reminded of all the circumstances of slavery and the difficult decisions they faced.” The three metal-clad volumes are covered in RHEINZINK flat-lock panels for both the walls and the roof. “RHEINZINK was selected to clad the roof and facade of the visitor center because of the attributes of its natural patina process,” says Elcock. “The inherent quality to dull and self-heal was important because it’s a direct parallel to the story.”

The space between the buildings increases as visitors move north. That serves as a metaphor for the increasing freedom slaves experienced as they fled servitude. The layout of the buildings, on a slight curve, with the northern most set back, makes the view to the south truncated, suggesting the idea of oppression.

Within the Community

According to Elcock, one of the goals of the center was to provide a central place of orientation and information for visitors making pilgrimages to learn about Tubman. Her birthplace is not known specifically, but the center is within miles of where she was born and lived until her mid-20s when she escaped. “The new park and visitor center will serve as the main gateway to the Eastern Shore’s Underground Railroad heritage sites,” Elcock says. “It could become a starting point for those tracing Tubman’s steps along the Underground Railroad to New York and Canada, and allow them to better understand the landscape Tubman dealt with in her early years.”

The strength of the design concept, the thoughtfulness of the layout and material selection, all point to a museum experience that takes visitors well beyond the arms-length exhibits and demonstrations they have traditionally enjoyed. If you want to measure the success of the center in purely economic terms, and not emotional or design, look to the number of visitors. According to Elcock, the visitor center, which opened in March 2017, has experienced about twice the visitor rate museum staff anticipated, and the nearby town of Cambridge, Md., has seen an uptick in tourism because of the new center.