Montgomery Parks officials last night unveiled schematic designs for a museum at North Bethesda’s Josiah Henson park, the site of a former plantation where the man whose autobiography inspired “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” lived and worked as a slave.
Parks officials, architects and designers said they envisioned interactive exhibits where the story of the Rev. Josiah Henson’s life – and the story of slavery in Maryland – would come to life.
The plans include a rehabilitation of the historic Riley/Bolten house, which served between 1800 and 1850 as the main farmhouse on the plantation of brothers George and Isaac Riley, a new visitor center on property bordering the historic site to include a multimedia theater, and numerous outdoor exhibits.
“Our vision was developing a museum that celebrates the challenging and inspiring life of Rev. Josiah Henson, who inspired the fictional character ‘Uncle Tom,’ that educates visitors about the enslavement of African Americans in Maryland and promotes a greater appreciation of history in this county,” said Shirl Spicer, a Parks Department museum manager.
Henson escaped from slavery between 1828 and 1830, according to a historic structure report for the site [PDF], and fled to Canada. Henson’s autobiography, first published in 1849, was widely read and inspired “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The 1852 book by abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe “changed forever how Americans viewed slavery, the system that treated people as property. It demanded that the United States deliver on the promise of freedom and equality, galvanized the abolition movement and contributed to the outbreak of the Civil War,” according to the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center.
The multimedia theater in the planned visitor’s center was envisioned as a “flexible” space that could accommodate 60 – big enough for two classrooms – where visitors would be introduced to Henson’s life with a six to eight minute film, possibly on as many as three screens.
“It’s the primary place to get that introduction into who Henson was and why he was so remarkable through this powerful visual experience,” said Larissa Hallgren of the Boston-based Experience Design.
Visitors would then be routed outside through an interactive “portal”—designed to be reminiscent of slave quarters that may have once stood at the site.
“The portal is really a place to transition the mind and become immersed in the Henson story,” Hallgren said. “As the visitors move through the space there may be a powerful quote from Henson embedded in the ground or powerful imagery…it’s a place to start imagining what life was like for him on this site during this time period. “
More outdoor exhibits are planned for visitors before they reach the Riley/Bolten House, where designers envision a timeline telling the story of Henson’s life, graphics and interactive displays, cases showing archaeological evidence uncovered at the site, several editions of Stowe’s seminal work, and an eight-to-ten foot book representing Henson’s autobiography.
“Most of the stories will be drawn from Henson himself with his autobiography as a source of information,” Hallgren. “This is how we know, and how we can tell this really powerful story.”
Exhibits will also portray life as an enslaved person working in the log kitchen attached to the Riley/Bolten house and Henson’s escape to Canada.
The schematic designs unveiled Tuesday represent about 30 percent of design work for the site, said Eileen Emmet, Parks Department project manager. Designs are aimed to be complete before a Montgomery County Planning Board hearing, likely in June.
Parks officials hope to secure construction funds for the project in the capital improvements plan for fiscal years 2015-2020.
A master plan for the site was approved in December of 2010.
For more information on the plans, view a PDF of Monday evening's presentation.