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VOL. 129 | NO. 151 | Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Incoming Civil Rights Museum President Seeks Connection

By Bill Dries

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The incoming president of the National Civil Rights Museum remembers a quick and hurried visit to the museum shortly after the debut of an extensive renovation earlier this year.

The incoming president of the National Civil Rights Museum, Terri Freeman, wants the museum to be more than a collection of exhibits, but instead a point to begin a conversation about the relevance of the movement to today’s events.

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

“It lends itself to giving people a physical, spiritual experience in coming here. It is a moving institution,” said Terri Lee Freeman, who comes to the museum from being president of the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region in Washington, D.C. “I come from a town where there are a lot of museums. I’ve never had the experience of being physically moved by a museum like I had when I came here the first time.”

But Freeman is also the mother of a 15-year-old daughter, which raises questions about how those with no memory of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s relate to the museum, the story it tells and the connection it seeks to make to the present.

“For her, the civil rights movement is like World War I history,” Freeman said of her daughter. “And there’s a real need for young people to be connected. The issues that occurred in the 1950s are still occurring today. They just wear a different face.”

Freeman becomes president in early November of the museum built on the site of the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

The museum’s $27 million renovation is the point at which current museum president Beverly Robertson chose to leave after 16 years, once the transition to Freeman is complete.

And Robertson has had the same concerns about the museum experience, particularly for school groups.

“School kids would come through the old museum and they would kind of rush through. They’d be done in about 15 or 20 minutes,” Robertson said. “And I would say there is something wrong with that. Either they are not understanding how this history connects with where we are today or they are not being briefed properly on the front end by the educators who are preparing them for the experience.”

So the renovation sought to work toward specific outcomes in the material that would not rely on someone else to make the connection and relevance apparent to today’s world.

Some of that stronger connection was in updated technology. The digital technology, as well as a more extensive presentation of the work of historians, resulted in a museum that offers much more detail for visitors who want it.

Like Robertson, Freeman said the museum’s role is to prompt conversations about civil rights and human rights.

“What good is a museum if it is just to house artifacts – if it doesn’t raise the level of conversation, if it doesn’t take you someplace else after you leave?” she asked during a stop at the museum last week as she and her husband and daughter make the transition of moving to Memphis. “I don’t know what the conversation is for everyone. But there should be some next conversation.”

With The Community Foundation of Washington, Freeman worked in raising funding, but the pursuit of that funding was also about raising awareness of economic issues like the ones chronicled in the museum. With her expertise, Freeman also hopes to take the museum’s fundraising efforts and philosophical reach more into “national avenues.”

Because the museum has always been about more than King’s assassination across its 23-year history and because of the assassination and its hold on people who want to see the site because of that, Freeman said the museum has an ability that most museums don’t.

“I don’t care what your race is, what your ethnicity is, where you come from – you know what happened here. And it’s a part of history that was a really, really dark time for our country,” she said. “But what it did with regard to the dialogue about race relations was really, really critical and important. What we can’t do though is forget about it. While we don’t always have to come back to it from the darkness of it, we have to recognize frankly that if we don’t remember what happened, it will happen all over again.”

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