CINCINNATI – The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center has a powerful new reason for you to visit: To feel what it was like to be Rosa Parks.
Parks, of course, is the civil rights activist who, on Dec. 1, 1955, refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala. She's sometimes referred to as "the first lady of civil rights."
Just about anybody who ever took an American history class that at least touched on the Civil Rights Movement has heard of her. But a new virtual reality experience at the Freedom Center lets you actually feel what it was like to be Rosa Parks that day on the bus.
The Rosa Parks Experience, as it's called, opens to the public Sept. 24, and it costs an extra $5 for a timed ticket. But after getting a chance to try it myself, I walked away thinking that was a small price to pay.
I won't spoil it by writing too much about what the experience is like. But the Freedom Center allowed a few visitors to try it out while I was there, and they found it quite powerful, too.
"I could turn around and see all the people in the seats behind me," said Devin Ferguson of Milford. She was at the Freedom Center Friday with her mom, Carol Dugan, to celebrate Dugan's 60th birthday. "It was really cool to be able to look at it from her point of view. It was a very intense situation."
Kathleen and Mike Johnson agreed with me that you could kind of feel in your gut was it was like for Parks that day.
"To actually sit there in the virtual reality experience and feel what it must have been like, it gave me a greater sense of her courage to do that," Kathleen Johnson told me.
"To me, it brought it to life," her husband added. "The exhibit makes you feel what that really must have been like. It was pretty eye-opening."
For the people behind the exhibit at the Freedom Center, that's exactly the point.
'I was blown away'
Here's how it works: Visitors will buy timed tickets for The Rosa Parks Experience and go up to the third floor when it's their turn.
As many as eight people at a time can wear the exhibit's virtual reality headsets and headphones as they sit on bus seats placed atop a low platform. The seats vibrate just as they would have on the bus that Parks rode. And the creators of the exhibit even recorded the low rumble of a GMC diesel engine like the one that would have powered the bus so the background noise would be right.
Richard Cooper, the Freedom Center's director of museum experiences, said he wanted to figure out a way to bring the exhibit to Cincinnati as soon as he tried it himself at a conference in Atlanta.
"I was blown away," he said.
Mobius Virtual Foundry, the company that created the experience, was in Atlanta showing off The Rosa Parks Experience to the museum executives at the conference. But – until now – the exhibit has never been installed at a museum, said Scott Clarke, creative director at Mobius.
The company took great care to research all the historical details to make the experience as true-to-life as possible for that point in time, Clarke said.
There are a few minor differences. For example, there were two police officers involved in Parks' arrest that day. The Rosa Parks Experience only shows one.
Interestingly, none of the technology itself is that super fancy, he said.
"The technology is off the shelf," Clarke said, and can be purchased at big box retailers. "But once you put it on your face, it's not about the technology at all. It's the experience you have."
It only takes about three and a half minutes for the whole thing. But the Freedom Center will leave extra time for people to talk about the experience and how it made them feel.
At the start, visitors will be able to buy tickets to The Rosa Parks Experience between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. on days the Freedom Center is open. If it continues to grow, however, the museum will extend ticketing until 5 p.m., Cooper said.
"We've never done anything like this," he said.
But if the experience is as popular as the Freedom Center is hoping it will be, those $5 tickets will generate revenue that the organization will use to fund more innovative exhibits.
I, for one, can't wait to go back and buy tickets so I can experience it again with my husband and our daughters.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.