Civil Rights Museum in Memphis Gets Interactive
By Martha Waggoner Associated Press Writer
January 14, 2010MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — The sign on the public bus from Montgomery, Ala., invites you to take a seat near the statue of Rosa Parks.
But no sooner do you sit on the hard, bench-like seat than a voice barks out orders in a distinctly Southern accent, intensifying with each message:
“Please move to the back of the bus.”
“I need that seat now. Please move back.”
“If you can sit there in other buses, suppose you get off and in one of them!”
“If you don’t move out of that seat, I’ll have you arrested.”
“Get up from there!”
Then the narrator chimes in, saying: “In 1955 if you had not moved by this point, you would be arrested.” That’s what happened to Parks, the Black civil rights pioneer who protested segregation by refusing to give up her seat to a White man.
The bus, with its plaster statues of Parks and a White bus driver, is one of the most popular exhibits at the National Civil Rights Museum, located at the Lorraine Motel. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated there April 4, 1968, when he traveled to Memphis to support striking city sanitation workers.
It’s easy to understand the popularity of the bus – it’s one of the few interactive exhibits at the museum, which opened in September 1991 and will undergo a renovation over the next three or so years with an estimated $10 million to $15 million cost.
Museum leaders “are fond of saying, when we opened, we were using state-of-the-art laser discs,” says Tracy Lauritzen Wright, the museum’s director of administration and special projects.
Another somewhat interactive exhibit involves a small room off to the side with two phones in it. Visitors can hear a conversation between President John F. Kennedy and Gov. Ross Barnett about James Meredith, the Black student who wanted to attend the University of Mississippi in 1962. Kennedy’s frustration grows and grows as Barnett says he’ll send 280 highway patrol officers to protect Meredith, but they won’t be armed.
“Well, what can they do to maintain law and order and prevent the gathering of a mob and, uh, action taken by the mob? What can they do?” Kennedy asks.
Barnett: “Well, they’ll do their best to. They’ll do everything in their power to stop it.”
Many of the museum’s exhibits rely heavily on time lines, newspaper clippings and other reading material. Renovations are barely in the planning stages, but Wright says the museum does intend to add technological elements to appeal to younger generations raised on video games and computers. On the other hand, the institution does not want to lose older visitors or overshadow its mission as a history, not a science, museum.
“We want to make it easier for people coming through to understand what are the key message points within each exhibition,” Wright says. “Now, that might be a little tricky with all the text information presented. What is the key message of a particular exhibit and how does that tie into the exhibit as a whole? Something we want to do is help our visitors understand the lessons of the movement and find their applications in their life today.”
One possibility would be to allow visitors to search for what happened in their communities during a particular time period or action, such as the sit-ins. Most people are familiar with the most famous of the early sit-ins, the ones in Greensboro, N.C., but not necessarily those in Nashville. “They would be able to identify more personally what was going on in their own community,” Wright said.
Or they might redesign the lunch counter that symbolizes the sit-in movement so that visitors can sit on the stools as they read about the movement and watch video of the sit-ins. Right now, the 1960s-era stools are deemed too fragile for sitting, especially in a museum that attracted 230,000 visitors in the fiscal year that ended in June 2009.
The renovation won’t change the museum’s size — 25,600 square feet of exhibit space in two buildings — nor will it change such important features as the preservation of room 306. That was King’s motel room just off the balcony, where a slightly colored piece of concrete symbolizes the blood he shed. Nor will other iconic elements change, including the replica of a Freedom Riders bus, which carried groups of civil rights activists to the South, and the recreation of the Pettus bridge, where protesters marching for voting rights in Selma, Ala., were beaten by state and local lawmen.
“We were one of the first museums of this kind, dealing with this kind of history as a permanent exhibition,” Wright said. “The objective was to really chronicle the key episodes of the traditionally understood civil rights movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s.”
The renovation will not make the museum unrecognizable from that original mission, she said. “We are putting on a new face and a little bit of new interpretation,” she said. Those include updates, such as the belated 1994 conviction of the man who assassinated civil rights leader Medgar Evers in 1963, and the 2008 election of President Obama.
If You Go ...
NATIONAL CIVIL RIGHTS MUSEUM AT THE LORRAINE MOTEL: 450 Mulberry St., Memphis, Tenn., http://www.civilrightsmuseum.org or 901-521-9699 . Open Monday and Wednesday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., and Sundays, 1 p.m.-5 p.m. Closed Tuesdays and major holidays. (Summer hours differ.) Adults, $13; seniors and students with ID, $11; and children 4-17, $9.50.