The design for the new LEED Silver Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center expresses the importance of traveling northward to escape the circumstances of slavery through an integrated site, building, and exhibit design.
Conceived as a series of abstracted forms that can be interpreted in many ways—from the farmstead vernacular of the region to stations along the Underground Railroad—the new complex immerses visitors in the story of Tubman’s life.
Joined by a shared entry plaza and terrace, the two structures of the complex, one exhibit and one administrative, frame a view north, expressing the importance of traveling northward to escape the circumstances of slavery. The space between the buildings grows wider as visitors venture north—a metaphor for freedom—and the view to the south is truncated by the splay of the buildings, suggesting a sense of oppression similar to that associated with the slaveholding states.
Clad in zinc panels, the three exhibit volumes will develop a dull, self-healing patina—a similar outcome hoped for the nation’s attitude towards slavery—while the southern volume, finished in wood siding, will weather to gray overtime. Just as the journey north was not a perfectly linear one for runaways, the design of the interpretive spaces allows visitors to take detours away from the main route to discover and learn. Views out offer a constant connection to the Blackwater landscape, the memorial garden, and freedom, enhancing the overall interpretive experience. Upon exiting the center, visitors are directed to the memorial garden where they are offered a direct route north, that then weaves through the site via various loops and returns—a metaphor for Tubman’s willingness to return to the region. Views along the pathway change from wooded areas to fields and marshes, all of which were part of the daily life of the free and enslaved at the time.