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VOL. 124 | NO. 190 | Monday, September 28, 2009

Museum President Talks About Renovations

By Bill Dries

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Beverly Robertson

This has been a busy month for the National Civil Rights Museum.

The Memphis institution normally honors national and international leaders in October with the annual Freedom Awards. This year, the Dalai Lama came to town early as the international honoree.

Next month, former NAACP Chair Myrlie Evers Williams and NBA Hall of Famer Julius Erving will be in Memphis to receive the National Freedom Award and the Legacy Freedom Award, respectively.

The museum itself, built on the site of the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, is about to undergo the first physical changes since its opening in the fall of 1991.

We talked with NCRM president Beverly Robertson about the changes.

Q: The renovation work on the courtyard has been the most visible sign of change to many visitors. Is that finished?

A: That really wraps up about five or six years of work we’ve been doing with the state of Tennessee in terms of trying to provide for capital improvements. This outside finishing up of the façade and underbelly of the museum is really a part of that project. So we’re through with that. We have other things that we want to do inside in terms of carpet and wall covering and painting.

Q: Where is the campaign to raise money for the improvements beyond those basics?

A: We are now about 18 years old and I remind people that we’ve gone through puberty. And the things that used to work really perfectly no longer work that way. When our technology breaks down, we have technological experts come in and say, ‘You need to junk it because it’s 18 years old. And we don’t even know where to find any of this anymore.’ So we need to actually change our technological infrastructure of the museum, period. Everything needs to be stripped out and totally redone. We also feel that children process information differently. … We want to upgrade the way in which we communicate to our audiences, especially our young audiences that come through. So, you’ll see not so much a change in the content, but a change in the vehicles and the ways we communicate to young people.

Q: When do those renovations begin and how much will they cost?

A: We haven’t established a firm goal. We know it’s going to be multimillions of dollars because we know the technology is not cheap. We have started the soft phase of the campaign already. So we are well into it. And probably by the end of the year we will be prepared to announce the actual hard goal. We’ve had some success, even in a down economy.

Q: Do you have to close during the renovation?

A: It’s a question we are struggling with. Obviously, if you can close down and let them get in and get the job done, then there’s less liability. But we just don’t like to close the institution because so many people travel from out of town, from out of the country to see this institution. … Maybe there’s something we can do that’s more of a hybrid. Maybe we can keep the facility across the street open and maybe do some exhibitions about what this building means and have guides to answer questions.

Q: What happens with Dr. King’s motel room?

A: We’re trying to decide if there will be a way for us to allow people to still see that room (during renovations). Even if they’re working in the museum, maybe we can have the entry up the (courtyard) staircase. That is what people expect to see. … It is such a powerful place and you cannot help but well up with emotion when you realize what happened in that place.

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