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VOL. 125 | NO. 200 | Thursday, October 14, 2010

Plans Unveiled for Expanded Civil Rights Museum

By Bill Dries

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Renderings of planned renovations for the National Civil Rights Museum show a new look not only for the lobby and entrance of the 19-year-old museum but also the South Main Street entrance to the museum plaza. (Photos: Courtesy of National Civil Rights Museum)

The bare bones of an expanded National Civil Rights Museum include three times more space for the Memphis chapter in the story of the civil rights movement, updated technology for exhibits and a more detailed story of how connected the events are over three centuries.

Leaders of the museum unveiled this week their concept as well as the design for the renovation of the 19-year-old museum.

It would add exhibit space on the second floor of the museum into the old Lorraine Motel in an area that is currently used for storage. A 1968-era Memphis garbage truck would be moved to the second floor as part of a more focused exhibit on the city’s role.

The area could also be used for an expanded exhibit on the movement’s campaign for integration in Northern cities and the rapidly changing events and philosophies in the two to three years before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968 on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

“This is useable history,” said Hasan Jeffries of Ohio State University, one of several historians and cultural experts the museum is consulting with on the exhibits. “It’s going to be much more hands-on and involved and not sort of words on a board. Over the course of 25 years, as historians, we’ve gotten a better grasp of what the movement was.”

Executive director Beverly Robertson said the museum is a keeper of history that for the most part still isn’t in most history books, even 40 years after King’s death. Because of that, she said the museum has an obligation to get the history of the movement and its context correct.

Jeffries emphasized that the changes aren’t an indication that the history presented now is incorrect.

An example is the exhibit on the 1962 integration of the University of Mississippi by James Meredith. The exhibit of the dramatic few days includes a station – high-tech for the early 1990s – in which visitors can hear President John F. Kennedy talking by phone with Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett at the height of the crisis.

“That actually needs to be reoriented. That Ole Miss event is really part of a larger event,” Jeffries said. “We’re saying let’s not just focus on what’s happening with James Meredith but what’s the organizing that’s going on.”

Those elements could include more about Medgar Evers, leader of the Mississippi branch of the NAACP who would be murdered a year later, and the Freedom Summer voter registration drives that followed that.

“When we begin to connect the dots, we see why it happened,” he said.

The plans, which include a mezzanine overlooking the sculpture at the entrance are still “fluid,” Jeffries said.

The auditorium would grow by about 60 seats and visitors would see a new video at the start of their tour, as well as one at the end and several in between. The one at the start would be on a screen that would lift or move to the side for a direct entrance into exhibits on the first floor.

Rather than a quick survey of the civil rights movement, the opening film will take visitors through slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation, Reconstruction and other precursors to the movement.

Phase one of the renovations should begin in February as a collections area is prepared to make room for exhibits to be taken down first for renovation, said Robertson.

The unveiling of the schematics means a public fundraising campaign is near. The museum approached past donors and others quietly for the last year and a half to build toward a general goal of about $20 million.

The museum was awarded a $750,000 challenge grant in August by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The money, which must be matched on a three-to-one basis by private contributions, will be used to build an endowment for the museum.

“We will remain open as long as we can,” Robertson said as she talked of a temporary closing at some point in the renovation. “We will try to keep the King room open.”

An annex to the museum across Mulberry Street will remain open and is not part of the renovation plans.

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