ATLANTA — When the National Center for Civil and Human Rights opens downtown in June, it's going to face some high expectations.
First, the 43,000-square-foot museum has set for itself the daunting task of taking transformative events that occurred four to six decades ago and making them real and relevant to Millennials and their children.
Then, it aims to put the American civil rights movement in a global human rights context and help visitors understand how struggles that played out in places such as Selma, Montgomery and Birmingham have modern echoes in countries around world.
And the $75 million structure that took eight years to build is expected to help transform a part of downtown that was considered a wasteland before the 1996 Olympic Games into a glittering tourist magnet.
Finally, it's supposed to give Atlanta, at long last, its own civil rights museum. The city was pivotal in the movement: It's the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr. and home to many of his top associates and to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee. But Atlanta has watched as cities such as Birmingham, Ala., Memphis and even Cincinnati and Greensboro, N.C., opened civil rights- or slavery-themed museums.
Center CEO Doug Shipman says Atlanta's museum will deliver because it won't be like those or any other civil rights museums. "They are memorials," he says. "This is not a memorial. This is about what the legacy means and taking it into the future. It's a different approach, and it's something that hasn't been done before."
To emphasize the importance of story, they did not hire a museum type to design the place but turned to George C. Wolfe, a playwright and director who has won two Tony Awards — in 1993 for directing the play Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and in 1996 for directing the musical Bring in 'da Noise,Bring in 'da Funk.
"My whole ambition is to empower people to feel like they're in charge of their own journey," Wolfe, the creative director, says on a walk-through of the museum's three galleries. "Overall, the civil rights movement is a story about individuals who stood up, who were young and had no reason to be brave. But they were brave. They were people who felt empowered to change the world, and they did change the world.
"That's what I want people to feel when they come here."
Numerous interactive approaches are used throughout.
One is an exhibit about the student sit-in movement, when mostly African-American college students tried to desegregate lunch counters in the South by sitting at them until they were served or, much more frequently, arrested. Students were cursed at, spat on, slapped and punched by whites who didn't want them to be served; they were trained not to react to any of it.
In the exhibit, visitors will sit on stools with their hands on a replica lunch counter while wearing headphones. They will hear abuse heaped on them and the people sitting near them and will actually feel their stools jostled by angry counter-protesters. They'll be timed on how long they can ignore their tormentors; a stopwatch in front of them will stop when they take their hands off the counter.
"It shows the self-discipline and control that was required," Wolfe says. "If only we could re-create the smell of hamburgers cooking."
There are no smells, but visual images, sound, light and physical space are all used to tell the story, says exhibit designer David Rockwell. "This is communal storytelling," he says. "It's designed to encourage participation as a kind of communal activity …. Whatever you think, you're not going to be emotionally disengaged."
Wolfe, who also has directed films including the HBO movie Lackawanna Blues and 2008's Nights in Rodanthe, has worked his Hollywood connections: Narrators for the exhibits include such actors as Jeffrey Wright, who plays Beetee in the movie series The Hunger Games and Dr. Valentin Narcisse in HBO's Boardwalk Empire, and Phylicia Rashad, perhaps best known as Claire Huxtable on The Cosby Show. The museum will feature a rotating exhibit of photographer Platon's portraits of world human rights leaders.
The civil rights gallery is connected to the human rights gallery, which lets visitors stand face to face with life-size images of such human rights supervillains as Adolph Hitler, former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and Ugandan strongman Idi Amin. In a Who Like Me room, they can stand in front of a full-length mirror and recite a few personal biographical details; that generates a life-size image of a real person who's being oppressed somewhere in the world because of those very traits.
A centerpiece of the museum, in a smaller gallery on the first floor, is a collection of King's personal papers — handwritten sermons and speeches, a telegram from President Lyndon B. Johnson, letters, his report cards, his college essay books. A group of Atlanta investors purchased the papers from the King family for $32 million in 2006 in a deal brokered by then-Atlanta mayor Shirley Franklin, who chairs the museum's board. Through an agreement with Morehouse College, which owns the papers, and the King estate, a rotating display of about 75 items will be on display at the center.
It opens to the public June 23. Admission will cost $15 for adults, with discounts for children, seniors and veterans.
The museum is just north of Centennial Olympic Park, in an area that includes the Georgia Aquarium, the World of Coca Cola and the site of the College Football Hall of Fame,scheduled to open in the fall.
"Atlanta was always known as a convention town, but we were never really known as a tourist town or a town with a lot of things to do," says A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress, which works to strengthen the economic vitality of downtown. "But we're becoming more of a things-to-do city and not just a convention town. The museum is going to be a big part of that."