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Officials Unveil Designs For Josiah Henson Museum In North Bethesda

by BethesdaNow.com — February 5, 2013 at 12:30 pm 0

Montgomery Parks staff and consultants on Monday outlined plans for a Josiah Henson museum that will focus on the life of the famous escaped slave and examine the context of slavery in Montgomery County.

In the hour-long presentation at Tilden Middle School, Parks project managers, the project architect and the person hired to design the exhibits spoke about their plans to design a state-of-the-art museum on a relatively tiny 1.5-acre parcel of land on Old Georgetown Road.

They also discussed potential parking issues and the exhibit’s compatibility with MCPS lesson plans. They expect a large share of museum visitors will be students on field trips.

“We know we want to tie the storyline tightly to what these teachers are addressing,” said Larissa Hallgren, who is helping to design the exhibits out of the Boston-based Experience Design company. “We want a site that’s going to we hope be essential for our social studies teachers so it will fit neatly into their curriculum.”

In the presentation last night, officials described a museum that would start with a new welcome center building that would house a gathering space, retail shop, restrooms, lunch area and 60-seat multimedia theater that could be converted to host other events.

The theater would show a looping six- to eight-minute orientation video that would introduce Henson and his importance as the inspiration for Harriet Beacher Stowe’s landmark anti-slavery novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

Henson lived on the property at 11420 Old Georgetown Rd. before fleeing for Canada. The museum designers said they intend to portray the challenges of escaping slavery, which many slaves did at night and in poor weather conditions, on the series of outdoor paths that will lead from the welcome building to the cabin.

The Riley House and cabin, which was rebuilt after Henson left but retains many of the features Henson would have experienced, will serve as the culminating feature of the museum.

Parks officials identified a series of storylines they wanted to explore in the project’s 2010 Master Plan. Exhibits could include a larger-than-life, eight-foot-tall book with Henson quotes meant to establish how important Henson’s own writings were to examining his history. Visitors will enter the Riley House from the back, just as Henson and other slaves would have been expected to.

Parks staff wants to acquire copies of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in foreign languages to demonstrate how influential the novel was in anti-slavery efforts. Stowe wrote the book based on Henson’s autobiography.

Another important feature Hallgren introduced was a structure meant to mimic slave quarters. It will greet visitors on the way to the Riley House from the welcome center. Planners see the structure as providing a bridge from the new, modern building to the 18th century structure.

In the Riley House, planners expect to show off archaeological features by railing off some sections where digging has been done. They’ll also feature the discovery of a barn or blacksmith workshop, made last year by a group working for a television show.

Parks officials were open about potential parking issues. With much history to show, the cramped property does not have space for visitor parking, according to the plan unveiled last night. Instead, there will be a bus drop-off point and a structured parking facility about two blocks north of the actual site.

Parks officials said they were aware of the unfriendly pedestrian environment around Old Georgetown Road and Nicholson Lane, a community of single family neighborhoods. They said they would lobby the State Highway Administration for more time for pedestrians to cross the major intersection.

Montgomery Parks is accepting public comment on the schematic plans, which are about 30 percent done, according to architect Robert Kinsley.

Parks project manager Eileen Emmet said the final facility plan should be done and issued to the Montgomery County Planning Board in June, at which time the Board will hold a public hearing on the plan and, if approved, move it to the County Council.

Emmet said Parks is targeting next year’s Capital Budget process, for fiscal years 2015-2020, to get the museum funded. Montgomery County bought the Riley home property in 2006 for $1 million. They recently worked out an easement deal with the National Park Service and the county’s Historic Preservation Committee to allow for a $100,000 federal grant.

Renderings via Montgomery Parks

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