Visitors immerse themselves in history at the Museum Center’s reimagined exhibit

The Public Landing at the Cincinnati Museum Center (CMC) is a leap back in time to the busy riverfront wharf of 1850’s Cincinnati, with cobblestone streets, shops, businesses, an open-air market, and a docked steamboat.


The reimagined exhibit — open since November — transports visitors to the same setting as before, but with a new level of immersive vibrancy, and a broader range of perspectives to reflect the population of the era.


Five soundtracks throughout the exhibit help bring the spaces alive. Out on the wharf, you can hear the lapping of the water, the shoveling of coal, and the calls of deckhands loading cargo.


Inside the brand new beer hall, guests are greeted with the convivial warmth of family chatter, accordion music, the calling of the bar keeps, and — if you listen closely — snippets of German mixed in with English. Conversation-starter cards and vintage board games encourage groups to linger around dining tables. And for the younger ones, there are play aprons, trays, and glasses with fun facts hidden at the bottom.


Each area of the exhibit carefully supplements real, historic objects with hands-on, interactive props.

In the printing shop, for example, authentic presses are displayed alongside a typesetting interactive. In the dress shop, you
can pick out designs and fabrics, while getting a sense of the era’s fashion conventions, seamstress wages, fabric prices, and family budgets. In the photography shop, you can take a vintage selfie, and browse enlarged reproductions of cartes de visite portraits taken by the shop’s namesake, 19th-century African-American photographer James Presley Ball.


Aboard the Queen of the West, kids are prompted to search for missing items hidden amongst the cargo, like a large crate containing a piano or six barrels of pork. This is one of several “snoops,” or seek-and-find activities, incorporated into the Public Landing to spark interactive engagement.


The exhibit finds creative ways to engage visitors with the broad range of people, goods, and ideas that were converging on Cincinnati during the era of steamboats and westward expansion.


“[We] had not yet made it up the hills around Cincinnati … and so everyone was living in the basin together,” explains CMC Chief Learning Officer Whitney Owens.


The luggage on the wharf invites a closer inspection of personal belongings from different classes, trades, cultures, and life situations. From the sack of bare essentials — fishing hooks, playing cards, and a harmonica — to the woodworker’s box of tools, plus a family trunk containing a set of china, a menorah, and a log of personal contacts, which includes the name of prominent Cincinnati rabbi Isaac M. Wise.


Owens adds that in addition to revealing the diversity of a burgeoning population, the luggage display is also useful for illustrating the challenges of historic preservation and interpretation.


“Why might we know more about someone from this class than from this class? This gets at something very interesting in a history museum,” she says, “which is ‘What is preserved?’”


Adding to the already-charged atmosphere of the Public Landing is an open-air corner for public debate where visitors can listen in on actual, historic speeches and rallies concerning three contentious issues of the day — temperance, immigration, and abolition.


As a museum, an educational resource, and an events venue, the opportunities of an immersive space like this are many. And they are exciting, Owens says.


“Because we have both the children’s museum, and the history museum, and the museum of natural history and science all here on site … we’re able to take a topic and look at it through the lens of STEM, through natural history, through early childhood and play, and through history,” she explains. “And there are very few places in the country that can do that.”

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Read more articles by Sarah Dupee.

Sarah Dupee is a freelance writer, teacher, translator, and musician with a background in French and Francophone Studies.