Back in old-timey days — ie over Thanksgiving break — some friends and I paid a visit to the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia. It’s a pretty new attraction, and it’s been on my list to visit since it opened in 2014. (We were told in the lobby that it’s “Not a museum,” and I found that to be true, but it’s in the same kind of cultural category). They’re still figuring out how to fill their space, I think, but it’s already well worth the visit. There are several sections, presented in the order I visited them, with a bit of summary at the end of the post. It took me a while to get this together, but I wanted to make sure it happened, because this place is awesome.
Voice to the Voiceless: The Morehouse College Martin Luther King, Jr. Collection
Downstairs, they display a substantial collection of Martin Luther King, Jr. papers. This section is more like a typical museum, presenting objects with limited interpretation inside object labels. In this case, the objects are papers, a few pictures, and I believe a few books. All very nice. This is a rotating exhibit, focused on the Nobel Prize when I visited, but always about Martin Luther King, Jr.
Forward Together: A Look at Atlanta’s LGBT History Since Stonewall
This display sits in the downstairs lobby, outside the MLK exhibit room. I’d seen it on the website and was really excited about this segment, but in person it was underwhelming — a series of panels in a timeline, showing the progression of LGBT history by decade. I think it’s probably very good, but since I’d just glanced at it online and thought it was part of something bigger, I was just a little disappointed.
Spark of Conviction: The Global Human Rights Movement
Upstairs, there’s a big open space devoted to worldwide human rights. This is where I started getting impressed. This gallery is state-of-the-art, full of interactive technology designed to engage your emotions, convey a few select stories, and back it all up with facts and statistics. The entryway sets the tone for the experience — fully mirrored, so first you see yourself, but the mirrors are also interactive screens. You can choose a label, like “LGBT” or “disabled,” and watch a life-size video of that person telling their story.
Once you pass through the mirrors, there’s a hall of villains and hall of heroes, bridged by life-size stand-ups with stories similar to those in the mirrors, telling about modern activists and what they do. Behind that there are cool pods where you can stand and watch videos, some static displays about trade ethics and stats, and some Iron Man digital tables with even more. You can select the issue you want to know more about and access information on the screens.
Having been involved with Amnesty International for several years, most of the content wasn’t news to me. It’s designed to grab people and give them a base of knowledge along with the emotional push to get involved. It was impressive, though, and well-balanced. I think they’re still streamlining and improving, but it’s already working at a high level, and I appreciated the level of inclusion. It’s a global perspective, covering race, religion, gender and sexuality, disability, and more.
Rolls Down Like Water: The American Civil Rights Movement
I’m pretty sure you’re supposed to do this first, but instead of going up into the human rights gallery, we went down from it, and did the Civil Rights Movement gallery backwards, but it didn’t hurt anything. This was my favorite gallery, and it would’ve been worth the price of admission by itself!
There’s more than I can begin to convey — I’m sorry I didn’t take any pictures, I was just too involved — but it combines the interactivity of upstairs with a little of the museum approach from downstairs to create a truly affecting experience. Apparently this gallery was designed by a Broadway playwright and director, which is fascinating, and clearly had the desired effect. The common thread throughout the different areas is combination of film/audio with some kind of immersive element or factual display. There’s a room where you sit in bus seats and watch a video about the Freedom Riders. There’s news coverage of MLK’s assassination, and that was the first point where I started to tear up, because it was so easy to imagine actually hearing that news in that context.
There’s much, much more, but the most memorable part of the whole museum is the station I almost didn’t visit: The Lunch-Counter Simulator. There are warnings everywhere that it’s not for kids, and a CCHR employee positioned there both to help with the technology and, presumably, to intercede if anything happens, because this is intense. The idea is that you sit at a lunch counter like you’re an integration protester, wearing big headphones, and put your hands on the counter. They play 3D audio threatening you, your stool shakes like it’s being kicked, I swear you can feel breath on the back of your neck. It’s only about a minute and a half, but the challenge is to keep your hands on the counter the whole time. And, you know, not start crying in front of all the other museum visitors. A friend did it first and pressed me to do it too, for which I am eternally grateful. It was awful and incredible and the Center wouldn’t have been the same without it.
The Gift Shop
This is just a note to say that I’ve been in museum gift shops, and very rarely do I actually want to buy anything. It’s usually the same run of cheap souvenirs. I wanted EVERYTHING in this gift shop; don’t skip it if you visit!
Verdict: Absolutely worthwhile, both as a visitor and as a public history professional. It’s “not a museum,” it’s an experience… Which is what every museum should want to be. Not every museum can or should offer this experience, or even this kind of production, but every museum should seriously consider what they’re offering to visitors, and give them something that matters.
The Center for Civil and Human Rights was an experience to remember, and just judging from the people there during my visit, it’s appealing to a startlingly broad visitor base. We saw people of all shapes and sizes absorbing the galleries with us, including a legit Buddhist monk, and all the interactive stations are wheelchair-accessible. The Civil Rights Movement gallery was amazing, and the whole center is an innovative approach to public engagement on any level. Highly recommended.