The modern, curved design of the stone-and-copper building on the "freedom side" of the Ohio River sits in abrupt contrast to a rough-hewn structure inside -- a small pen built by a slave trader in 1833.
The 20-foot-by-30-foot pen is the starkest display in the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, a $110 million project to open Tuesday in memory of the harrowing trips north by countless slaves.
"It's a place where we're getting people to understand the past and connect it to the present in an active way," the museum's executive director, Spencer Crew, said Monday.
The museum, which will be formally dedicated Aug. 23, takes a forward look at race relations while focusing on the history of slavery in the United States and the secret network that helped slaves escape north to freedom in the 1800s.
"What the Freedom Center can do is provide a context for America's current social dilemma," said Nathaniel Jones, a former civil rights lawyer and retired federal judge.
"From generation to generation, there is this disconnect; they do not understand the nexus between slavery, what it did as an institution . . . and how that condition created the conditions we have today. Slavery reformed and distorted our institutions . . . [which] reflected the stereotypes and perceptions that guide people's thinking."
The slave pen, much like a small house made of rough-hewn logs, was found on a farm near Maysville, Ky. Preservationists spent six years researching its history, verifying that its builder was a slave trader, then carefully disassembling it and marking each piece for identification.
It is the featured exhibit in the 158,000-square-foot museum. Other exhibits include contemporary quilts, some 20 feet tall, and murals depicting the slave trade; photos and tributes to 19th-century abolitionists; and a timeline of events starting with the introduction of African slaves to the Virginia colony in 1619.
"We did a national competition to have artists offer us their ideas on the art they'd like to have in the Freedom Center, and then we had a jury make a selection," Crew said. "I think we've been very fortunate to get some very powerful and wonderful pieces that talk about freedom, illustrate people who have made important steps in that direction and also just give us the history of the United States on these issues."
There is a replica of a wagon with a false bottom that was used to hide fleeing slaves. And a 2-foot-by-3-foot wooden crate like the one that Henry "Box" Brown used, with the help of an accomplice, to have himself shipped from Richmond to Philadelphia -- and freedom.
Displays in the Pavilion of Perseverance include the story of a female slave who escaped to Ohio by crossing the partly frozen Ohio River with her baby, inspiring Harriet Beecher Stowe -- a preacher's daughter who lived in Cincinnati -- to write "Uncle Tom's Cabin."
Although the Underground Railroad had numerous lines -- possibly 500 routes in Ohio alone -- Cincinnati was considered a gateway to the north, museum officials said.
"Historically, Cincinnati's the perfect location for this type of museum because Underground Railroad activity and abolitionism were strong in Ohio, and Cincinnati itself had a very strong Underground Railroad group, both black and white," said Crew, the former director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.
Although workmen were still laying brick and stringing wire outside the museum Monday, the inside was complete and officials decided on a "soft opening" Tuesday without fanfare, Crew said.