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VOL. 123 | NO. 223 | Thursday, November 13, 2008

Comment Period Open For Civil Rights Museum Renovation

By Bill Dries

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The board of directors of the National Civil Rights Museum has known for a few years that the facility needs a renovation.

NCRM president Beverly Robertson compares the 17-year-old museum to an adolescent going through puberty.

“All of the things that you thought were right at one point in your life, all of a sudden nothing works the way it’s supposed to,” she said.

Robertson and four museum designers said this week that the election of Barack Obama is a critical moment in which more Americans will seek out the museum that chronicles the civil rights movement.

Representatives from the four design firms being considered for a renovation of the museum met the public – about 40 people – at the museum one week to the day that Obama was elected President of the United States.

Robertson said the museum’s whole technological infrastructure needs to be replaced.

“When our technology doesn’t function, we call in our technicians and they basically say to us, ‘You need to junk that stuff because we don’t know how to fix it,’” she said.

A milestone of note

After last week’s presidential election, Robertson and several of the designers said the museum’s context needs to be altered.

Ralph Appelbaum

“The museum is poised for a new interpretive process that will reveal what no one expected,” Ralph Appelbaum of Ralph Appelbaum Associates of New York told The Daily News after the two-hour meeting. “Remember this was a museum that was more and more becoming a story of heritage and not a story of our true present and our future. We thought the future was far ahead. We didn’t think the future was with us today.”

The museum board will pick one of the four design firms Nov. 19 to begin the work of planning specific renovations and possibly an expansion of the historic site where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968.

Design work is expected to start in January and Roberston said a capital campaign to raise public and private funding will determine how much gets done. At the outset, Robertson said the project could involve raising as much as $15 million.

Time for a facelift

The designers didn’t have drawings or blueprints. They were asked instead to give a few ideas for how to upgrade the museum.

Ray Brown

Ray Brown of Eisterhold Associates Inc. of Kansas City, Mo., which designed the original exhibits at the NCRM, said the exhibits need to be “reorganized and reworked and refreshed” to “engage a generation that has a whole new way of looking at the world.”

Even when the museum opened in 1991, the designers knew that by national age demographics, most of those who toured the museum would have no memory of the civil rights movement.

“You can’t let that overdetermine what you do,” Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, a history professor at Ohio State University, told The Daily News. “You have to present almost a multilayered story so that you address different levels of knowledge coming in the door.”

Jeffries is part of the team from Amaze Design of Boston.

Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries

“The big part is not so much about the movement itself,” he said. “They are here to learn about that too. But it’s to establish the context. If you can create that early context for why people engaged in civil rights activity, then by the time they get to those movement experiences, they can take that forward.”

The Amaze team suggested more touch-screen exhibits to replace the text on the wall that makes up much of the museum’s “preamble” from the early days of the slave trade in America through the Reconstruction era after the Civil War.

Brown said his own visit to the emotional climax of the museum, King’s room at what was then the Lorraine Motel, left him angry and despairing.

“I walked away from (Room) 306 with this sense of hopelessness, frankly – rage, anger, resentment … and I had no place to take that,” he said. “I had no place to put that. I walked away in despair.”

Brown suggests expanding the wing of what was the row of motel rooms to include a two-story area for reflection and exhibits that chronicle what followed the assassination in a broader manner than the annex to the museum. The annex currently focuses on particulars of the assassination including various conspiracy theories.

Sacrosanct

Jeffries said the design firms are “treading lightly” when it comes to King’s motel room because of the emotion it evokes.

“The fact that the National Civil Rights Museum is at the Lorraine Motel, an historic place, makes it unique,” he said. “What a great museum would do would explain how you get to that moment – why King is killed, why King was in Memphis, but then also explain that that is not the end.”

Jeff Howard, of Howard + Revis Design of Washington, D.C., suggested moving the vintage 1968 Memphis garbage truck to the second floor near King’s room. In its place downstairs, he suggested expanding the exhibit on the Birmingham campaign to include more attention to King’s letter from a Birmingham jail.

All of the firms suggested doing more with the courtyard of the museum, from making it more of a gathering point to having a more detailed plaque beneath the balcony where King was shot.

The competition among the design firms is similar to a process used in many projects including the recent planning for Shelby Farms Park. In the Shelby Farms process, the firms competed by presenting specific plans before one was selected to develop a master plan.

The museum is taking comments from the public through Monday.

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