Grown Deep Like the Rivers: Tides of Freedom Exhibition Review

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

–Langston Hughes, The Negro Speaks of Rivers (1920)  
Courtesy of The Independence Seaport Museum
Located at Penn’s Landing, overlooking the Delaware River, the Independence Seaport Museum is devoted to the Maritime History of Philadelphia and boasts a vast collection and resources to reflect this mission. At first glance it hardly seems the appropriate venue to begin a discussion about Freedom and what this simple word means to a variety of people, past and present. However, through the artfully crafted exhibition, Tides of Freedom: African Presence on the Delaware River, (on view until 2015) the museum begins to do just that. More specifically, Tides of Freedom explores this idea of Freedom through the lens of the African Experience along the Delaware River and the City of Philadelphia.

Set at the back of the nautically designed museum full of blues and greens, Tides of Freedom automatically gathers the attention of the Visitor by using bright pops of burnt orange amid a very modernly designed series of text panels and a very well produced introduction film. This introductory film features the exhibition’s curator, Tukufu Zuberi. Professor of Race Relations at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert host on the History Detectives. This format of visual storytelling from the expert perspective is carried throughout the five periods of the exhibition: Middle Passage; Enslavement; Emancipation; Jim Crow; and the Civil Rights Movement. Both highly interactive and object saturated, Tides of Freedom, transports each individual into a specific time period, forcing them to make very specific choices. The most notable of these choices comes at the intersection between Emancipation and Jim Crow, when you are a given a choice. You can enter the accompanied gallery through a door marked Colored Only or through a door marked with the inverse: White Only.

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While I am not normally a fan of interactives, especially with such a historically centered topics such as this, Tides of Freedom has a specific agenda behind each interactive. Every action tries to pull the visitor into the African experience and away from his or her own that has so artfully constructed. From auction blocks to oyster shucking, this exhibition forces the visitor into these experiences in order for them to be better understood in this world of desensitization. Overall, the entire exhibition forces the visitor to think, to view experience through a very narrow lens and percolate around our own conceptual ideals of Freedom and seeking that experience. Through technology, design, and abundance of artifacts (particularly printed media) Tides of Freedom can be a transformative experience. However the range of this transformation depends solely on the interest and ability of the visitor. Many of the objects that are most moving are under protective shrouds that must be lifted, and most interactives require a curious visitor to venture forward and make the first move. Without this willing curiosity, I truly believe this exhibition would fall on deaf ears.

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All of these experiences, objects, and interactives culminate at the end of Tides of Freedomthrough the introduction of a thought board. Stamped with questions like, “What does Freedom Mean?” and “Who is Responsible for Creating Equality?” the dialogue, which has been brewing throughout the entire exhibition, finally has the opportunity to be heard. The wall first littered with Dry Erase quotations, now sports a more time-tested method of pencil and paper. The responses to these questions can drastically vary, but it does not take long to see how each new response has played off the older ones. This collaborative effort has been able to present a wonderfully introspective view into our society’s thoughts surrounding the concept and ideal that is Freedom through a specific lens of experience. Tides of Freedom: African Presence on the Delaware River can be transformational exhibition if you are willing to step up and actually explore the African experience and what Freedom truly meant for them and for you.

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