The National Civil Rights Museum Celebrates a Remarkable Renovation

Bold new exhibits, super-smart technology, and tales of ordinary people with extraordinary courage.

Photograph by Larry Kuzniewski

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In 2007, Beverly Robertson gave a presentation to her board about the push toward heritage tourism. “I saw a lot of competition around us in the development of museums and historic sites,” says the president of the National Civil Rights Museum. “I started a competitive analysis of the industry so we would know what we were up against.” 

She also saw the need to refresh and update. “Our exhibits were showing their age, and some of the technology we had [when the museum opened in 1991] had started to break down. We’d bring in the technocrats and they said, ‘You need to junk this stuff. It’s too old, we can’t fix it.’”

When the NCRM board decided to pursue a renovation, installing the latest technology was a big part of the plan. But beyond that, and perhaps most important, “we saw how history had changed,” says Robertson, “and we knew we must reflect those changes on our walls.”

Before long, the vision for this renovation became an all-encompassing, 4,000-square-foot expansion. When the NCRM hosts its grand opening the weekend of April 4th, visitors will see a transformation that starts with a reconfigured lobby easing the flow of traffic, a spiral staircase leading to second-floor exhibits, and major expanded areas for displays that give a comprehensive view of the civil rights movement in America. These exhibits — some new, all updated — begin with an in-depth look at Africa, exploring its civilizations, and move on to slavery and the ensuing “Culture of Resistance” led by courageous individuals who dared to revolt. One of the most powerful displays in this first section, complete with audio of passengers crying and shuffling, is a three-dimensional ship hold in which visitors can crouch and try to imagine what humans endured as part of the Atlantic slave trade in the late 1700s, when they were packed in ships and brought to this country as commodities, like grain or sugarcane. 

From there, exhibits focus on the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Jim Crow era of segregation; they proceed to twentieth-century events that rocked the world, and culminate by showing how people of other nations are working today to advance freedom. 

Each exhibit has its own color and design theme and emphasizes interaction between viewers and displays. Several employ “smart tables” that allow visitors to place themselves within the movement. They press a screen, view the action, and hear leaders’ voices. They go to a map, touch a state, and learn what strides toward desegregation were taking place from California to Maine. Within each exhibit is a large-format image in which visitors can observe their own silhouettes — in effect embracing them as part of the movement. As they leave the museum and pass a reflective wall, once again they see themselves in the march toward freedom.


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