By the time you encounter Harriet Tubman, you realize that captivity is no longer an option. “If you want to run away, you better get in here,” the escaped slave and legendary Underground Railroad conductor tells you.
You notice that she’s holding a pistol.
“Do what I tell you,” Tubman advises. “If you don’t I will shoot you myself.”
It’s the mid-1800s and you’ve just crossed the Atlantic Ocean from Africa and passed through several centuries of history in a matter of minutes.
Impossible? Not within the time travel experience of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History’s new permanent exhibition, And Still We Rise: Our Journey Through African American History and Culture. Borrowing its name in part from poet Maya Angelou’s most popular work, “And Still I Rise,” the exhibit opened to the public Nov. 30, and creates an interactive walking tour of black history, with lifelike animatronic black heroes serving as tour guides.
The $12 million, five-year renovation and expansion project was created largely in response to previous criticism of the permanent exhibit space at Charles H. Wright, says Christy Coleman, president and CEO of the museum.
“It was one of the things that I was asked to review during my first 24 months on the job: whether to supplement it, complement it or start over again,” Coleman says.
The museum’s previous permanent exhibit opened to mixed reviews, with numerous visitors complaining that the centerpiece, a slave ship replica, and the extensive historical chronology and glass-covered artifacts were boring, commonplace, and too sparsely scattered to justify the large space they occupied.
Coleman says the museum consulted focus groups — 250 people total — for input and improvements. The end result: The main gallery was redesigned and expanded from 16,600 square feet to its present size of 22,000 square feet, with 22 video, audio and interactive feature galleries.
The new exhibit retraces the path from ancient Africa to modern-day Detroit, combining the global legacy of the black diaspora with its local challenges and triumphs. A visit to a marketplace and palace of an oba — or king — in the small nation of Benin circa A.D. 1400 offers a look at the early sophistication and splendor of black civilization. In stark contrast, visitors must then travel forward across the wooden plank of a European slave ship and into the vessel’s horrifying hull, then arrive at the scene of an Annapolis slave auction during the late 1700s. Haunting audio recordings that represent the moans and cries of captives accompany the experience unlike the previous exhibit’s purely visual display, which featured stationary replicas of expressionless, enslaved young adults aboard a vessel.
The exhibit space makes creative use of darkness, particularly in setting the horrific mood that accompanies the walk into the dungeon-like replicas of the holding areas where captives awaited transport to America. The presence of cramped forms lying chained together during the voyage is eerie and memorable.
Along the journey, visitors will meet with seven custom-made, lifelike figures, such as Tubman, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, women’s activist Sojourner Truth, Detroit labor leader Walter Reuther and late Mayor Coleman Young; some of the figures are programmed to speak to visitors. They were crafted by the Bowling Green, Ohio-based Life Formations, which produces figures ranging in cost from $2,500 to $12,000, depending on detail specifications.
“I would say that most of our figures are historical figures,” says Rodney Heilegmann, the company’s president. “We work very closely with museums, and they tell us what they want.”
The silicone likenesses for And Still We Rise were based on photographs, drawings and written accounts of physical descriptions, he says.
In the modern Detroit section, a smiling Coleman Young is seated in his office, complete with desk and table ornaments, in a display that highlights the city’s past and examines its future.
“We talk about our successes, not only in business, but in science, art and everything that’s going on today,” Christy Coleman says.
The modern segment also features interactive, civic-oriented games and a “voting ballot” that enables visitors to make choices about the direction of the city, including choices related to education and political empowerment.
The new exhibition also contains about 800 artifacts, including photographs, documents and cultural objects.
Coleman says she is proud of the mix that And Still We Rise provides for visitors seeking to be both educated and engaged.
“I think this one will probably have critics, people who will say it’s too environmental,” Coleman says. “What we have attempted to do here was create an experience. We wanted to create something that people could emotionally and intellectually respond to.”
The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History is located at 315 E. Warren Ave., Detroit. Call 313-494-5800 or visit maah-detroit.org. Eddie B. Allen Jr. is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]