Memphis’ National Civil Rights Museum reopens April 5 with free events & discounted admission
I talk a lot about the National Civil Rights Museum in this blog. It is, after all, the country’s most visited civil rights museum, with 200,000 visitors annually. Its location – at Memphis, Tennessee’s Lorraine Motel, site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination – underscores its singularity.
Next month, the museum will reopen following an 18-month, $28 million renovation. Opening weekend is packed with events, free and open to the public:
- Fri., April 4 (2-5:30 p.m.), panelists will discuss the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act and a candlelight vigil (6-8 p.m.) will commemorate the anniversary of King’s death.
- Sat., April 5, a parade (9:30 a.m.) leads from Memphis Cook Convention Center to the National Civil Rights Museum, where a grand reopening ceremony ( 11 a.m.) kicks off main stage performances and speeches until 7 p.m.
- Throughout the weekend, museum admission will be discounted from $15 to $5. Tavis Smiley will moderate Friday’s panel, which will feature Freedom Award honoree and Freedom Rider Dr. Bernard Lafayatte. Saturday’s headlining performer is being kept secret until that morning. President Obama’s been invited for the weekend.
New: More to see, hear and touch
If you’ve visited the museum since it opened in 1991, you might be wondering what’s changed. From the outside, things look constant, save for several listening posts like this one that were added early in the renovation:
It’s inside the Lorraine Motel portion of the museum where the changes really hit you. The riveting exhibits are still here: the Freedom Rides and Montgomery buses; the Pettus Bridge; the sit-in counter; the Memphis sanitation truck.
What’s gone are the lengthy text panels. In their stead are song and speech selections, oral histories, mini-documentaries – 40 new films, in fact – mixed with hundreds of artifacts that, you guessed it, make the museum even more moving. My favorite examples:
- The new March on Washington exhibit (above) really transports you: Floor-to-ceiling photography envelops you in the crowd; a large screen loops King’s “I Have a Dream” speech; several listening posts allow you to select and listen to other speeches from that day.
- Remember the compacted jail cell and the text of King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that hung within it? The cell is larger now – walk, even sit, inside it, and listen as King voices his letter.
- In the new Brown v. Board of Education exhibit, pull up to school desks to examine primary sources including a letter written by “a worried senior” to Ernest Green, one of the Little Rock Nine. The author urges Green to skip graduation to avoid “marring” the occasion for white students.
- All around, sizable touch screens serve up supplemental info customized to your curiosity. I learned something about my home state by touching Florida on the map in the “Standing Up by Sitting Down” exhibit, a vignette on nonviolent protests across the country. Turns out there were wade-ins in the city of St. Augustine aimed at integrating the beaches.
- Added exhibits like a room dedicated to the Southwest Georgia movement and another to Black Pride celebrate the significance of song. Sing along to spirituals and freedom songs in the former; listen to James Brown or Marvin Gaye in the latter.
Obviously, the renovation exploded the museum’s multimedia appeal and interactivity. Toward the end of the exhibits, check out this smart table titled “Join the Movement” to select topics – poverty, war, integration, women’s rights, nonviolence, riots – and explore photos, videos and schools of thought related to each:
In sum, there’s more to touch, see and hear, and even the films that have always been here now play out on screens so large, the injustice looms like never before. Still, your walk through the museum ends at room 306. No touch screens to tinker with; no video to distract; just that room, its wreathed balcony and your thoughts:
By this point in the museum visit, we’re all asking the same question. National Civil Rights Museum President Beverly Robertson poses it this way: “Would I have been able to stand up knowing my life could have been snuffed out?” Robertson wants you to leave contemplating your role in society today, knowing that you have the power to make a difference.
What about the Legacy Building and the balcony?
The Legacy Building remains unchanged (that’s the building across the street from the Lorraine Motel that tells the story of King’s assassination and the ensuing manhunt, investigation and trials; included with museum admission).
Balcony tours of the Lorraine Motel, which were available during the renovation, are now closed, but you can still get a good view and/or photos from the interior of the Lorraine Motel portion of the museum and the plaza that fronts it.
Keep the conversation going in the comments section below: Share what the most moving exhibit at the National Civil Rights Museum is for you. Note which aspects of the renovation you’re most anxious to experience. After April 5, share your impressions of the new museum.