Carnegie Center celebrates Underground Railroad exhibit

Photo by Brock Kennedy

Story by Brianna Waggoner

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A painting inside the Underground Railroad exhibit. Photo by Brock Kennedy.

The Carnegie Center for Art and History’s doors open to reveal two rooms on either side of the building, both with hair-related sculptures and paintings for their latest showcase. A gold-leaf-encrusted barber chair sculpture sits elegantly in the center of the leftmost room.

A wall in the back of the museum reads “Ordinary People, Extraordinary Courage,” showing a mural of an African American man raising his hands to the sky. The exhibit tells the story of the Underground Railroad and includes a secondary exhibit telling the story of escaped African American slave Lucy Higgs Nichols.

“Usually when we talk about the Underground Railroad exhibit at the Carnegie, what we’re really talking about is two different exhibits. One is really kind of an overview of the history of the Underground Railroad as it happened in New Albany. It’s basically telling the story through various individuals’ voices,” said museum educator Julie Leidner. “The other part of that exhibit is the Lucy Higgs Nichols story, which, rather than being a general overview of the whole community, it’s an overview of an individual’s life.”

The Carnegie Center has an Underground Railroad exhibit where visitors can hear the stories of different people who endured slavery and the Civil War. The overview of the Underground Railroad is a small and permanent exhibit, but the Lucy Higgs Nichols exhibit further explains the story of one individual as a compliment to the permanent exhibit.

“The story of the Underground Railroad is specific to New Albany/Floyd County and this area of the Ohio River,” said museum director Eileen Yanoviak. “We have a really important place in the story of the Underground Railroad because Kentucky was a slave state, Indiana was a free state, and the Ohio River was a bit of a common crossing point for people trying to seek freedom in Canada.”

The Underground Railroad exhibit combines art with history and even includes a film visitors can view as they tour the exhibit. Yanoviak enjoys both the art aspect and the historical aspect of the Carnegie Center. She also admires the work put into revealing and figuring out the history of the community.

“I think what exhibitions do is [take] all this intricate research and primary source documents, a lot of professional information that a historian has that they’ve spent years and years researching, and they translate that information into something that the average person who comes into the museum can see, experience, [and] understand in deeper ways,” said Yanoviak.

Along with having historical exhibits, the Carnegie Center also showcases contemporary art. Public programs and engagement coordinator Al Gorman, who self-identifies as an artist, enjoys the artistry aspect of the museum. He encourages spreading creativity in the community and likes to see different art styles.

“Communities are very expressive and are a part of the times that we live in. We’re so curious about what people do, and there’s so much talent and creativity and art out there,” said Gorman. “What we do is provide a really beautiful showcase to present that. We put it into a form of perspective that will allow you to learn more about it.”

Though the opportunities are not paid, students are still encouraged to volunteer or intern at the museum for a hands-on experience if they wish to work a history-related career.

“We can structure something, it’s essentially like a volunteer, unfortunately, these are not paid internships, but we’re working towards that,” said Gorman. “We also know that if you’re pursuing a college setting, we can provide much more instruction, and you get credit for it. You’ll be able to work in a museum and do what we do. Definitely go out there and volunteer.”

While working at historical buildings, one can meet many different people and witness many different cultures. He or she can also hear other perspectives on individual art pieces.

“My favorite part is meeting new people from all over the world,” said guest relation coordinator Delesha Thomas. “I’ve met people from as far away as England, Ireland, Africa, Tibet, and the many different artists who share their gifts and talents.”

Leidner recommends that students looking to work at a museum or art organization have ideas about what exactly interests them. This can ensure that a student may apply for the best possible position in his or her own interest.

“My recommendation would be to be very clear about what aspect of art that you’re interested in, which you may not know,” said Leidner. “You may just think, ‘I know that I like art,’ or ‘I know that I like history,’ but you may not necessarily want to go and stuff envelopes. If you’re interested in learning about how to teach art, ask if there’s an opportunity to do that. Don’t just be passive.”


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