Department Chair

Andrew D. Nicholls, Ph.D.

Date of Award


Access Control

Open Access

Degree Name

Museum Studies, M.A.


History and Social Studies Education Department


Noelle Wiedemer

First Reader

Noelle Wiedemer, M.A.

Second Reader

Cynthia Conides, Ph.D.


This thesis is grounded in a reflection and analysis of the building of an institution whose foundation and visuals position the narratives of Black individuals at the forefront of Underground Railroad interpretation. In 2018, the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center opened to the public after decades in the making. Its permanent exhibition, One More River to Cross, set in motion a shift in power – of whose stories are represented and shared – generated by visual activism.

“Between the American Revolution in 1776 and the end of the Civil War in 1865, thousands of freedom seekers escaped slavery in the southern United States. Many relied on a network of people and places called the Underground Railroad.”[1] The nature of the Underground Railroad was to operate just out of view, to aid and create the opportunities for enslaved persons to make it to free states and Canada. Because it was necessary to keep the movement hidden, evidence of these operations is rarely depicted visually. This thesis explores the creation of the One More River to Cross exhibition and calls for exhibit design and interpretation to be more inclusive utilizing a critical lens, to generate a shift in how we understand the Underground Railroad.

I argue that by only exhibiting visuals that are readily available, the most critical elements of history are left out. This in turn continues systemic oppressive practices and behaviors. Throughout the last half century, exhibitions in museums and other educational and public settings rely on visuals used again and again, or that are easily accessible, to depict the stories of the Underground Railroad. These visuals are most often photographs or paintings of white abolitionists, sympathizers and Quakers, and their homes, properties, or material possessions. Black individuals are most often depicted on the run or hiding and are rarely specific persons recognized in a non-demeaning light. This is a result of the continued systemic oppression of Black individuals stemming from slavery, who would not have had the privilege to record, document and display their own stories. When only the visuals most readily available or easily accessible are used in the interpretation and presentation of the Underground Railroad narratives, we often fail to capture the reality of those whose experiences defined the fight for freedom. These experiences are not only representative of the past, but they are also intertwined within our cultures and communities to this day.

Museums and caretakers of public history need to expand how they think of utilizing visuals – of whom, by whom, for whom, who is there, and who is not. Every image has power.

[1] Network Wall, One More River to Cross Exhibition. Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center, 2018.