The National Underground Railroad Freedom Centre opened in August 2004 and has since strived to tell the stories of those who have fought for freedom from the Underground Railway to the present day in the hope of challenging people’s ideas about inclusivity and freedom. The museum also aims to encourage and inspire people to promote and work towards freedom. Its position next to the Ohio River is a poignant reminder of its purpose as this river separated the southern slave states from the free states of the North. The National Underground Freedom Centre examines America’s heritage alongside discussions of contemporary slavery and human trafficking. It also forms part of a group of 'Museums of Conscience' alongside three others across the United States, including the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Centre reveals stories about freedom’s heroes: the men, women and children who challenge inequities to pursue greater freedom for their brothers and sisters. Through a series of rolling ‘special exhibitions’ and its vast collections displayed in several permanent exhibition spaces, the museum highlights the long history of enslavement in America, and its continuing legacy in the modern world.
The centre's most significant artifact is an original slave pen (or prison) originally built in 1830, and thought to be the only surviving example in the world. Visitors can walk through the pen and see some of the names of the people who were once held there. Alongside the pen, which is housed in its own exhibition space on the museum's second floor, there is a permanent exhibition, 'From Slavery to Freedom.' This exhibition covers three hundred years of slavery from its introduction to the Americas to its abolition. 'From Slavery to Freedom' is funded by the Oprah Winfrey Foundation and features a range of collections, including artefacts, archaeological specimens and paintings.
The centre also houses the 'world's first museum-quality, permanent exhibition on the subjects of modern-day slavery and human trafficking'; 'Invisible: Slavery Today' uses the experiences of five individuals who have been caught up in different forms of contemporary slavery and exploitation to highlight the issue in the modern world, as well as including examples of modern antislavery work around the world.
The centre also contains examples of interactive exhibits, with films, hands-on activities and live gallery talks, aimed at providing their visitors with a multi-sensory experience.