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Garden to bloom before museum
Slavery Museum to open garden as construction schedule gets pushed back

 The U.S. National Slavery Museum plans to open Spirit of Freedom Exhibit Garden on its grounds June 21.
REZA MARVASHTI/THE FREE LANCE-STAR
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Date published: 5/19/2007

By PAMELA GOULD

U.S. National Slavery Museum officials won't be holding a "soft opening" by year's end as originally announced, but next month will begin offering access to outdoor activities aimed at helping visitors better understand a slave's life.

The Spirit of Freedom Exhibit Garden will open to the public June 21 and honor "those who risked everything to be free," said Matt Langan, a spokesman for the museum.

Establishment of the exhibit garden and other outdoor activities was timed to be part of this year's 400th anniversary commemoration of the founding of the first permanent English settlement at Jamestown.

Museum officials have long said they would hold some form of "soft opening" by the end of this year, but construction has not yet begun on the planned $100 million structure. Langan said he expected it to begin within the next several months.

The museum should open late next year, he said.

Former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, now Richmond's mayor, originated the idea for the museum. It is to be built on 38 acres within the Celebrate Virginia development in Fredericksburg.

The site overlooks the Rappahannock River, a feature officials hope to utilize as they launch activities this summer that will give people a glimpse into the risks of escape via the Underground Railroad.

The museum plans to have trained volunteers lead visitors to the site on day and night re-enactments of escapes to freedom. They plan to engage them in tactics employed for navigation and eluding capture.

Officials also hope to arrange a river travel element for the activities.

The garden, located at the site's entrance, will have nine educational displays to help visitors understand the perspective of slaves and their struggle for freedom. The displays will deal with topics such as abolitionists, runaways, acts of bravery and the need for endurance on the road to freedom.

"Hallelujah," an 8-foot-tall, 4,700-pound sculpture, will be the garden's centerpiece. Staunton resident Ken Smith crafted it from Virginia stone.

The garden will also feature wooden carvings from West Africa--the land those forced into slavery had called home.

The museum is planned as a 290,000-square-foot structure with a full-size replica slave ship.

Pamela Gould: 540/735-1972
Email: pgould@freelancestar.com


Slavery museum officials reported $50 million in cash and pledges in July 2005. Since then, public fundraising efforts have included a gala at the Warner Theatre last June and a call for all Americans to give $8, launched in September. In March, a "green screen challenge" was added to the campaign, offering people the chance to insert themselves into an online video with entertainer and museum board member Bill Cosby.

The video challenge met with technical difficulties that were recently addressed, museum spokesman Matt Langan said. Two people have taken part thus far; a third entry was to be uploaded soon.

The "Why $8" campaign raised $50,000 the first weekend, Langan said. An updated tally on all fundraising was not available yesterday.

Museum: usnsm.org Green-screen challenge: eightbucks.org