Our Museum, Our Mirror
As a new era dawns, the National Civil Rights Museum has new generations to inspire.
photograph by Larry Kuzniewski
I arrived in Memphis on June 23, 1991, 11 days before the National Civil Rights Museum first opened its doors, launching a new era in the city where Martin Luther King died so tragically in 1968. My arrival completed a generational circle of sorts, as my father had been born and raised in Memphis, but had left for the University of Tennessee in 1960. The city my dad knew as a boy — segregated, and not just on Sundays — had long been transformed by the time the former Lorraine Motel took on its new role. That said, the mission of the museum should continue to be the mission of every human being, Memphian or otherwise.
Over the past 23 years, I’ve taken several visitors through the galleries of the NCRM. College buddies from Connecticut and Massachusetts, high school friends from New Hampshire and Vermont. Just last summer, friends from Guam — including their two children — walked with my daughters and me from Beale Street to the museum, then heavily under construction, its metamorphosis well under way. We were able to gaze upward at the wreath in front of Room 306, though, and heard words of inspiration at the listening posts that now accentuate a guest’s walk to the main entrance. The visit reminded me how far Memphis had come in 45 years, and how the best museums are in fact mirrors to humanity’s never-ending evolution.
My daughters — now 14 and 11 — have each taken multiple tours through the NCRM. When they were very young, they enjoyed “the Rosa Parks bus” because it was tangible, something they could enter and explore, if not actually ride as its most famous passenger had in changing the world. They would sit at the lunch counter and look at their parents with some confusion at the hateful language they heard over the sound system, language they never hear at actual restaurants they visit. Restaurants in their hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. And they’d do the best they could at studying the countless photographs and passages along the gallery walls, so many black faces looking back, many of them pained.
There’s a danger, though, in staring at black-and-white photos, especially those that serve as history’s markers. Living in the full-color world we do, it’s easy to discount those monochrome images as being from “days gone by.” That picture of a lynching that took place in the 1930s? May as well have been the 1830s. And that was forever ago, right? New world today.
And it is a new world. My daughters have grown up in this city’s public school system. They’ve each sat in classrooms where, being Caucasian, they were distinctly minority. The idea of drinking from water fountains their black friends and teammates could not use is as foreign to them as the notion that girls don’t have the constitution or strength to play soccer.
The newly renovated National Civil Rights Museum is a part of this new world. You’ll find photos — many of them black-and-white — in the galleries, but you’ll also feel what it’s like to walk through the Supreme Court, to stand on the Washington Mall. If interactive makes a museum modern, the NCRM is sprinting toward the twenty-second century. Wonder what it was like to hear a young Muhammad Ali denounce war in Vietnam? Not only can you touch a screen to hear (and see) Ali’s protest, you can touch the screen again and become an active supporter of Ali’s cause. Past, meet present. And look out, future.
You’ll find one exhibition space at the NCRM entirely unchanged. Room 306. However young or old my guests have been, wherever they call home, and however many times they’ve visited the NCRM, they’ve all paused at the glass wall allowing a view into the last living quarters Martin Luther King knew. It must be among the most silent “exhibits” of any museum on the planet. (I’ve seen groups of more than 30 kids achieve silence in a matter of seconds when their teacher explains what they’re seeing.) As this extraordinary repository of heartbreak and dreams plots a new course for educating, the link to Dr. King — to April 4, 1968 — is an important one to retain. We’re meant to pass this room with a heavy heart, with thoughts of what might have been.
For now, do as my daughters have done. Keep your eyes, ears, and most importantly, your mind open to diversity. Consider how that diversity makes our world a far more interesting place, more worthy of the curiosity that fuels societal growth and achievement.
Frank Murtaugh is the managing editor of Memphis magazine.