Good Life

Museum displays Bellefonte’s link to the Underground Railroad

Mudiwa Pettus shows where she is going to install plaques on the ceiling with information she wrote about the Underground Railroad. The Bellefonte Art Museum is constructing a new permanent exhibit called “The Underground Railroad a Journey to Freedom” about the portion of the Underground Railroad network that existed in Bellefonte.
Mudiwa Pettus shows where she is going to install plaques on the ceiling with information she wrote about the Underground Railroad. The Bellefonte Art Museum is constructing a new permanent exhibit called “The Underground Railroad a Journey to Freedom” about the portion of the Underground Railroad network that existed in Bellefonte. nmark@centredaily.com

There’s not a lot of headroom in the secret space that was hidden behind one of the walls of The Bellefonte Art Museum.

It’s nit picky, sure, but it’s one of the first things that you can’t help but notice. The loose scraps of newspaper, the flickering lantern, the blacked-out windows all catch the eye long before the people do.

For a second it feels unconscionably rude, because that’s almost exactly the amount of time it takes to realize that the eyes you so far have neglected to catch belong to cutouts, people-shaped canvases onto which the real-life hardships of hundreds of escaped slaves have been painted.

The tableau has been meticulously pieced together, the world’s most dispiriting showroom in the world’s most downbeat furniture store.

Artist Lino Toyos provided the cutouts and the props, dressing the scene in an approximation of a history that has physically, if not spiritually, long since faded.

The ambiance, though, is the genuine article, a leftover from the Linn House’s tenure as one of the stops on Bellefonte’s neck of the Underground Railroad.

That hidden space, low ceilings and all, was inherited by The Bellefonte Museum of Art when they moved in — and so of course they turned it into an exhibit.

“I felt it was very important to have the exhibit available because there is no place in our town where we commemorate this time in our local history,” Patricia House, the museum’s executive director, said.

“Underground Railroad: A Journey to Freedom” opens with a reception from noon-4:30 p.m. on Sunday, April 3.

Visitors will be able to lay eyes on the secret room — and the hidden tunnel that connects to a closet — through two glass partitions that prevent the overly adventurous from diving too deep into the past.

House said that rumors regarding the Linn House’s compact hideaway had been in circulation for years, but weren’t confirmed until they found the original plans from an early 20th century remodel.

The secret space was hidden behind the wall of a room on the upper floor of the museum, a smallish enclosure that might have once been a storage space or accommodations for a guest that nobody wanted to get too comfortable.

A doorway has been neatly carved into the plaster. It was easier than asking people to enter through the hidden door at the back of the hall closet and crawl on their hands and knees down a cramped passageway.

House said that it took them several years to decide how to best exhibit the space and to pay tribute to the all of the people who had made the Underground Railroad possible.

“We asked artist Lino Toyos to create an installation that would be reminiscent of the frightened feelings and exhaustion that folks must have experienced,” House said.

History would be mined for art, but not without the former getting its due.

House engaged the services of Mudiwa Pettus, a Ph.D candidate at Penn State, to research and write the plaques and brochures that would add historical context to the exhibit.

The first time that she came face to face with the confines of the secret room, Pettus said that she was struck by the extent to which African Americans were willing to fight for the freedom of friends and family.

Both Pettus and House wanted the exhibit to emphasize the sizable contributions that African Americans had made toward their own freedom.

“African Americans were really at the forefront of helping one another escape and kind of resisting slavery as an institution,” Pettus said.

Still, there were a few overt problems to researching a covert endeavor.

“It’s not really well documented, for obvious reasons,” Pettus said.

She consulted with local historians like Constance Cole and read Charles Blockson’s “The Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania,” trying to narrow the scope of an extensive network down to a local level.

Pettus’ finished work will be printed work will be printed on plaques and brochures posted throughout the exhibit.

“I think it was nice to get reminded that history unfolds all around us,” Pettus said.

Frank Ready: 814-231-4620, @fjready

IF YOU GO

What: “Underground Railroad — A Journey to Freedom” opening

When: 1-4:30 p.m. April 3

Where: Bellefonte Art Museum, 133 North Allegheny Street, Bellefonte

Info: www.bellefontemuseum.org

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