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

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.

 

 

 

In planning the renovation — which was carried out by the design team Howard + Revis of Washington, D.C.; architects Self Tucker of Memphis; and the Tulsa-based commercial contractor Flintco, with offices in Memphis — the NCRM conducted visitor surveys and tried to determine their expectations. Most wanted the museum to keep the iconic exhibits, such as the Sit-In Lunchroom Counter with its three-dimensional figures, and to add more archival film and artifacts. The museum also sought public input about the design program and each phase of the process.

In terms of diversity among those advising, designing, and executing the renovation, Robertson says, “We had specific guidelines for the kind of minority professions we wanted involved. The people we selected exceeded them. We had no trouble whatsoever finding extremely competent and capable people, and many were here in Memphis. Wouldn’t it have been a travesty for us to create this museum and not integrate people who were involved in this struggle if they were talented and had expertise?”

Perhaps most vital to this huge effort was the need to anchor the exhibits in scholarship. “We wanted to make sure that whatever we placed here was historically solid and accurate,” explains Robertson. “We wanted to know what we had omitted, how we could add depth and breadth.”

This led to the founding of a Scholarly Review Team of experts from across the country. After looking at various universities and fields of study, the NCRM chose 24 scholars — men and women, black and white, with expertise in areas that range from history, art, and African-American studies, to music, law, and grass roots organization. Several are local, representing Rhodes College and the University of Memphis. Other team members teach at such universities as Duke, DePauw, Stanford, and the University of North Carolina. Most have specialized in various eras and events unique to American civil rights, from sit-ins and Freedom Rides to the March on Washington and pivotal events in Memphis and Birmingham.

One of these scholars is Earnestine Jenkins, an associate professor of art history at the University of Memphis. Her expertise lies in such areas as the art and visual cultures of Africa, and the history of African Americans in Memphis. “We worked with Michael Honey, prominent historian on the labor movement [here] and its connection to the sanitation strike,” says Jenkins. “The importance of Memphis to the larger narrative needed to be highlighted and reflect the fact that Dr. King came here because a grassroots movement focused on working-class people was already happening in Memphis.”

Jenkins — who also contributed new content about West African history, culture, and art, and wrote the exhibition panels for some of the objects — recommended that the exhibition start in Africa and stress that the first Africans who came to the Americas brought spiritual beliefs, values, and cultural practices that strengthened their resolve to survive in the New World. “This is at the root of cultural resistance,” she says. “Call it spirit, soul, character, whatever, but it is what gave people not only the will to survive, but the tools to create the dynamic cultures we admire today.” 

As important as the story of slavery was to the civil rights movement, Jenkins adds, “the new narrative should also have a global thread running through it to show how this African-American-born movement affected humanity around the world. It had to be about connecting the past, the present, and the future. And it needed to send a message to young people that this is an ongoing struggle that requires a commitment from each generation. That is how the new theme, ‘Culture of Resistance,’ was born.”

Working with the NCRM as a primary advising scholar was Hasan Jeffries, associate professor of history at Ohio State University; his focus has been on twentieth-century African-American history relating to civil rights and the black power movement. One of his duties in the early stages was to suggest, based on recent studies, which existing exhibits should be expanded and featured more prominently. Among those chosen for a more “immersive” treatment was the exhibit on the 1964 Freedom Summer and the role of the Council of Federated Organizations. “[These] were lifelines for volunteers venturing into communities where whites were especially prone to violence,” says Jeffries. “The exhibit is designed to convey the goals of the summer project, the exhaustive and extensive nature of the work, and a palpable sense of how dangerous that work was.”

The scholars also wove together themes, such as the critical role played by women and the desire to labor with dignity and for a just wage. Within each exhibit they prioritized story lines and highlighted key people, places, and events. Robertson credits the scholars for identifying people whose courage should be revealed. “This museum tells not just of those we’ve heard about but others who struggled and sacrificed. Scores of people we don’t know till now, and you’ll have an opportunity to hear their voice. Everyday people can accomplish great things if they have the courage and passion to stand. So it’s an inspirational story, of struggle, success, and ongoing vigilance.” 

 

 

 

In terms of being “historically solid,” as Robertson emphasized, Jeffries calls the existing exhibits “remarkably accurate. What was needed,” he adds, “was to make the text less dense, less a catalogue of facts, and to use more visual and interactive technology.” 

Robertson concurs about making the text less dense, calling it one of the many challenges of the renovation. “This is a big exhibit with a lot of robust information,” she says. “We had to hone each story down to what we believe are its most important elements. We didn’t want to overcrowd the space with so much information that people would be overwhelmed.”

Another challenge facing the NCRM was raising funds for a capital campaign of $40 million; to date $28 million has been raised. “This effort was launched in the midst of an economic downturn that served to shrink the middle class and their disposable income,” says Robertson. “But we are blessed at the museum to have ongoing support from individuals and corporations who really believe this work is of tremendous value not just to us in Memphis, but to this nation and beyond. Individuals, churches, foundations — including the National Endowment for the Humanities — have joined with large corporations to support this campaign. Some are new audiences for us, and that’s a positive thing.” Among the major local sponsors are the Hyde Family Foundations, the State of Tennessee, FedEx, the Assisi Foundation, Southeastern Asset Management/Longleaf Partners Fund, Ford Motor Company Fund, and The Links, Inc.

The museum is also raising money beyond Memphis, “in places where we didn’t think we had a strong following,” says Robertson, “with contributors from Florida, California, and from companies in other areas. We had to expand our reach because we know Memphis has a lot of terrific causes, but it’s only so big, and businesses can only go so far.” 

In addition to funds for physical structures, the NCRM is working to build an endowment fund to support educational programs and traveling exhibitions. “We’ve done it on a very limited basis,” says Robertson, “but not to the degree we envision. The endowment is substantial enough now that we can.”

She also stresses building stronger relationships with young people “by ensuring that history resonates in ways that compel them to get involved.” One way is through interactive displays using the latest forms of touch-screen technology. Another is through teaching not just history but geography. “We don’t know enough about the cultures of others, the struggles we have in common, and how often we are more similar than different,” she says. “Learning geography helps us see that and brings the world a lot closer to Memphis.”

When the doors open to the transformed museum on April 4th, Robertson believes visitors will understand how the civil rights movement has helped other groups besides African Americans — including women, Hispanics, those in the gay community, and people around the world.” 

The movement is powerful as a result of struggles and victories,” she says. “But with every victory there’s another struggle, and we have to stand up and fight for people’s rights. ‘If I win, you lose’ isn’t the idea. We can all win. A rising tide floats all boats. If things get better for folks at the bottom, it should get better for all of us. Everybody should be able to find their voice because of the stories we tell.” 

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