The Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center reveals authentic stories of Underground Railroad freedom seekers and abolitionists in what was a last stop before reaching freedom in Canada. The experiential museum’s permanent exhibition, “One More River to Cross,” uses historically accurate theatrical recreations and illustrative and dramatic interactive media to immerse visitors in the crucial role Niagara Falls played in the journey of the freedom seekers. The Center is located in the city’s landmark 1860s customs house, which is connected to the Niagara Falls Amtrak station.
“The intersection of Niagara Falls and the Underground Railroad presented us with a lot of unique scenarios that can’t be found anywhere else,” notes Seth Frankel, Principal at Studio Tectonic in Boulder, Colorado. “The Falls was one of the seven natural wonders of the world, the city was full of tourists, it was the industrial Silicon Valley of its day, and it was the narrow end of the funnel in the 40-year history of the Underground Railroad. Our goal was not to tell the history of the entire Underground Railroad, but rather to show the pathways that led to Niagara Falls and tell the very personal journeys of the freedom seekers.”
Technology brings the realities of this extraordinary 19th century movement to life for today’s visitors. Linear video, interactive and interpretive media help visitors understand and experience the dramatic final stages of the long, hard journey for themselves. Multimedia recreations of the crossing points highlight the risks the freedom seekers faced. Powerful audio gives a voice to historic figures letting them tell their inspirational stories in their own words.
Electrosonic provided engineering and AV build services to the Center partnering with exhibit fabricators United Service Associates, Inc, the lead exhibition design and interpretive firm Studio Tectonic and media developer Richard Lewis Media Group. “One More River to Cross” recently won the 2019 Award of Excellence from The American Association for State and Local History.
Visitors touring the Center follow a linear route through a series of gallery spaces. “One More River to Cross” begins in the atrium of the Niagara Falls Amtrak station adjacent to the Center. An interactive Network Wall uses powerful imagery and content to trace the network of people, routes and means of transport employed on the Underground Railroad in the journey from the American south to Buffalo, New York.
“The touchscreen interactive and the station’s stone wall used as a projection surface introduce the players: the freedom seekers, the hotel owners in Niagara Falls, the bounty hunters, bystanders,” Frankel explains. “One hundred beautiful original watercolors commissioned from African American illustrator E.B. Lewis became stills and animations on the wall.”
From the modern Amtrak station, visitors enter the attached Center in the historic customhouse next door. As if it were the 1850s, visitors meet representations of individuals in town, interacting with the welcome scene and activating scenarios that reveal the purpose and role of these people in the Underground Railroad.
Next, visitors enter a recreation of the Cataract House hotel – with interactive, page-turning registry – and an opulent dining room. The dining room features an interactive table, the clatter of china and glass and projections of the black free waiters who served guests while secretly helping freedom seekers cross the river into Canada.
In the Escape Gallery visitors hear the crossing stories of three people narrated by actor Keith David and meet important figures such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. Lyrics from music sung by Mahalia Jackson, referring to Moses crossing into freedomland, are projected onto a wall of wooden boards.
A section of bridge, recreated to scale, takes visitors on that last crossing of the Niagara River. “The actual bridge was the world’s first railroad suspension bridge,” says Frankel. “There’s a giant backlit historical painting of the Falls as they would have been seen by freedom seekers making the crossing, and there’s a projected line marking the US-Canada border – slavery and freedom. At the end of the bridge are windows framing the real location outside the building.”
The final Freedom Gallery is a contemporary space featuring images and portraits of freedom seekers from the 1870s to today as people worldwide still struggle for liberty. “The historical characters hand off visitors to modern-day individuals with their own stories to tell,” Frankel explains. Visitors are invited to consider parallels between the historical and contemporary stories with the hope that these stories and connections will allow for deeper thought and consideration of different perspectives and prompt actions in our own lives.
Electrosonic provided an array of audio and video solutions for the Center, tailoring equipment to the needs of each gallery. The company supplied and installed numerous touch and viewing monitors, ultra short-throw, LED and DLP projectors, HD media players, expanded network I/O and audio support throughout he Center. An overall control system was designed and implemented by Electrosonic as well.
“It was our first time working with Electrosonic,” notes Frankel. “We had a significant amount of media to put in a small space, and, as landmark building, it was a difficult space to work with. The Electrosonic team was instrumental in confirming that what we wanted to do could be accomplished and developed practical solutions to make our ideas a reality. We relied on them to turn our concepts into buildable, deliverable results.”
“This was an important project for Electrosonic in terms of its subject matter and the great working relationship we had with our partners, which really showed itself in the end result,” says Chris Johnson, Strategic Partner Manager at Electrosonic, Inc. “We formed a great team.”
“I remain impressed by how well the Center delivers its message and its mission,” concludes Bryan Abelowitz, CTS-D, Director of Sales/East for Electrosonic Inc. “I am sure that most visitors leave with permanent impressions of this time in the nation’s history and a better understanding of the difficult subject matter.”
At Electrosonic Rick Nelson was the Project Manager and Elliot Nyfield the Engineer.