The National Civil Rights Museum Celebrates a Remarkable Renovation

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

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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.” 


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