Changing the Signs

A family friend came to town earlier this year and, instead of more typical destinations for out-of-towners such as a trip to the zoo or a suburban amusement park, one of the first places he visite

Dec 14, 2005 at 2:06 pm

A family friend came to town earlier this year and, instead of more typical destinations for out-of-towners such as a trip to the zoo or a suburban amusement park, one of the first places he visited was the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. The draw was certainly not its plodding architecture — a brown heap of concrete and stone with its back to the city — or the glass and steel sports stadiums and surface parking lots surrounding it on Cincinnati's riverfront.

Our friend is from Chicago, so he knows firsthand what a good public space should be, thanks to visits to his hometown's Millennium Park. He sought out the Freedom Center because he's a historian and well-regarded lecturer on the Underground Railroad, slavery and African-American genealogy.

He stepped through its front door, an entrance that's difficult to find when you're walking from downtown, because the Freedom Center's purpose speaks to what he does professionally on a daily basis.

His opinion is worth noting to John Pepper, former Procter & Gamble CEO and Freedom Center fund-raising co-chair who's returned to town to take the reins as Freedom Center CEO. He takes over from Spencer Crew, who's been reassigned as the Freedom Center's president beginning Jan. 1.

"This is a museum of signs," was how my friend summed up the Freedom Center. "Beautiful, colorful signs, but little else."

Told that hometown titan P&G was a force behind the creation of the Freedom Center, my friend nodded his head and smiled.

The company's writing is on every Freedom Center wall. P&G — the world's expert brander, marketer and packager — has created a museum true to its own heart, a place of extraordinary signage.

Pepper should take note that this visiting African-American scholar comes to Cincinnati regularly but has no plans to give the Freedom Center a second chance. He values content and programming more than creative displays.

He wants a museum that contains things of value, says something important and offers creative and intellectual engagement. It should be a space of culture and quality, not just a temple of political correctness, good intentions and corporate ego constructed from Italian travertine stone.

The winter chill wipes away the few tourists who visit Cincinnati these days, and the small crowds have made the Freedom Center a starker place. The museum is dark more often now, opening its doors only Tuesdays through Saturdays and only from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Pepper's résumé when it comes to the Freedom Center revolves around the fact that, between 1997 and 2004, he helped raise $100 million to launch the institution. It's proof that he can offer plenty to the fledgling museum, which is desperate to get back on track.

Official word from the Freedom Center speaks of new board members representing various communities and diverse skills, volunteer advisers to help with fund-raising and an Academic Advisory Council to address programming and content development.

There is plenty for Pepper and his new team to do to make the three massive stone pavilions along the newly built East Freedom Way into something more than a hollow icon for community goodwill and brotherhood. The challenge is whether Pepper can change his own stripes and think, act and execute like someone other than a P&G company man.

Building the Freedom Center the P&G way is what created the Museum of Signs. Turning it into something more is going to require a different way of thinking.

John Pepper might not realize what he's gotten himself into — the need to reinvent himself as well as the museum he loves.

Contact steve ramos: sramos(at)