The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is once again vying for the right to call itself the best history museum in the United States. It’s one of three regional museums in the running for spots on USA TODAY’s 10Best lists for 2024.
Cincinnati Museum Center is home to the other two museums: the Cincinnati History Museum and The Children’s Museum.
The Cincinnati History Museum is looking to replace the Freedom Center at the top of the fan-voted list of history museums. The Children’s Museum, also located at Union Terminal, is a finalist for the top children’s museum.
Each of the annual USA TODAY 10Best Reader’s Choice Awards categories features 20 museums from across the country. A panel of experts and editors selected the nominees, but the final top-10 rankings will come down to a vote by museumgoers.
The Freedom Center – located in downtown Cincinnati – finished first last after previously placing second and third in 2021 and 2022, respectively.
CMC’s Cincinnati History Museum secured a top five finish in 2023 and The Children’s Museum finished in the top 10 in its category.
Voting will take place online through Feb. 12 at 11:59 a.m. A person can vote one time per day, per email.
“Now is our opportunity to show the rest of the country how incredible our museums are and to declare what we’ve always believed and what we see in the faces of our guests every day: we are not only the best museum in the country, we are the best museums in the country,” said Elizabeth Pierce, CMC’s president and CEO.
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
Since opening in 2004, the Freedom Center has shared stories of heroes from the era of the Underground Railroad to modern day abolitionists. The downtown Cincinnati facility is on the banks of the Ohio River, where many enslaved people took their first steps on free soil after self-liberating through the Underground Railroad in the mid-1800s.
Exhibits highlight the work of freedom fighters such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, John Rankin, Abraham Lincoln, Henry Box Brown, Margaret Garner and other important figures many have forgotten.
Through a collection of immersive exhibits, programming and films, the museum aims to bring people together to discuss sometimes difficult topics, such as what constitutes freedom today. Other topics include systemic racism, implicit bias and modern-day enslavement.
The Freedom Center holds accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums, a distinction held by just 6% of museums nationwide.
“We are honored to once again be recognized alongside some of the top history museums in the country,” said Woodrow Keown, Jr., president and COO of the Freedom Center.
“Being acknowledged four years in a row is a testament to the work we do and the importance of presenting fact-based history that can move our nation forward together. It shows how relevant this history remains and the critical role museums like ours play in weaving and preserving the fabric of our shared cultural heritage,” he continued. “We hope supporters locally and around the country vote to help us be recognized once again as the best history museum in the country.”
Cincinnati History Museum
The Cincinnati History Museum traces its roots to the Cincinnati Historical Society in 1831. Considered a regional history museum, the facility showcases artifacts alongside interactive experiences that transport guests to the earliest days of the Queen City. Its five exhibits take guests through more than 250 years of Cincinnati history.
Visitors can tower over a scale model reproduction of historic Cincinnati, walk the cobblestone streets of the mid-19th century riverfront and meet the innovators who powered Porkopolis and the Queen of the West. There are additional galleries in development.
“History isn’t just about the past or some event frozen in time, it’s dynamic and informs who and where we are today,” Pierce said. “We’ve designed a history museum that lets us travel to the past while finding its place in the present, being both immersive and introspective in a way that is at once wildly enjoyable and powerfully informative.”
The Children’s Museum
Opened in 1998, The Children’s Museum invites kids, and their caregivers, to splash, climb and play through 11 themed areas. The Woods is among the most popular. There, children can explore a two-level, forest-inspired play zone, complete with an aquarium filled with local aquatic wildlife.
Other attractions include Water Works, where guests can develop a hands-on understanding of flowing streams, locks, geysers, jets and the overall power of water. In the Energy Zone, kids learn about the principle of cause-and-effect and simple machines. Kids can also learn about healthy food choices in a mini grocery store and about responsibilities at home through a walk-in model. The Inside the Grin display is about teaching about the importance of oral health.
Like the Freedom Center, both CMC museums have American Alliance of Museums accreditation.
“As (children) play, they are learning about physics, biology, hygiene and engineering and, importantly, the value of being curious and trying new things,” Pierce said.