AAHC Forum: Preserving History and Culture at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

This post is a part of the AAHC Forum. In the coming months we will invite current and past grantees to contribute their project experiences via blog posts on our UpNext Blog and then ask you to respond through the AAHC Virtual Forum. We hope you will add your voice and share your needs and opinions so that AAHC can continue to help African American museums thrive. Please visit the AAHC forum to continue the conversation.

Introduction: The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center was awarded a 2012 African American History and Culture grant to develop an institutional succession plan to provide professional development and training opportunities to mid-level managers and directors in order to enhance their leadership and managerial skills. By developing a succession plan, identifying emerging leaders within the organization, and providing the leadership and management training necessary to enhance management and museum-specific skills, the Freedom Center will increase institutional sustainability, reduce turnover rates, and improve leadership capacity.

IMG_2066By Chris Miller
Manager of Program Initiatives, National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Before becoming a manager at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, I was a historical interpreter and re-enactor. For over five years I was responsible for providing dramatic, first-person interpretations that were compelling and educational. The transition into a different role has been challenging, yet rewarding.

I view my current role at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center (NURFC) as an opportunity to enhance the museum experience through various programming efforts. Although revealing stories about freedom’s heroes is a constant theme for any role at NURFC, the transition from performer to programmer presented some unforeseen challenges.

In my previous position, I would bring history to life through the stories of great Americans like Rev. J.W. Loguen, King of the Underground Railroad. Through these portrayals, the struggle for freedom is humanized. I would receive feedback from applause, cheers, a handshake, or a tear. Approval of my efforts was immediate. But for a programmer, feedback is measured drastically differently.

My participation in the African American Leadership Development Program (AALDP) has had a profound impact on my transition. Through this program, I gained a greater awareness of the social politics within the city in which I work and live. I have been able to build new relationships with other professionals and establish a network of support. Being the only museum professional in the class, I have been able to be a source of greater understanding of history and culture. I’ve also received productive guidance in regard to health, economics, community service, and personal development. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is how to use my power and influence while remaining authentic and genuine.

We are in the midst of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement. There are plenty of timely historical accounts to reflect on, while being challenged and inspired to take greater steps for freedom today.

The program initiative honoring the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington is planned to launch in August.. The goal is to provide an integrated museum experience featuring music, song, spoken word, interactive interpretations, and exhibits in one evening. Through the development of community relationships, this initiative is designed to be an ongoing cultural experience with great possibilities for making history compelling and engaging to a broad audience.

As a manager at NURFC, I continue to tell the stories of freedom’s heroes through program initiatives. But I also have the awesome responsibility of preserving history and reminding our community of matters of enduring social value and cultural relevance.

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