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Visitors get a taste of a protester's experience at this simulated lunch-counter sit-in.

Visitors get a taste of a protester’s experience at this simulated lunch counter sit-in.

The National Center for Civil and Human Rights, which opened June 23 in downtown Atlanta, aims to be a place where visitors will learn about human rights and “leave inspired and empowered to join the ongoing dialogue . . . in their communities.”

Programs and community collaborations will be avenues to that end, but its three core exhibits — a history of civil rights, a presentation of Martin Luther King Jr.’s papers and an examination of human rights battles worldwide — do the work day to day. In large measure, they succeed as meaningful, memorable experiences, adding a new dimension to the city’s cultural portfolio.

Designed by the Rockwell Group in consultation with curators and center staff, the exhibits are rich in information and imaginatively designed. Though different in tone and content, they all use stories of real people as the basic means to spark engagement and empathy, the first step to action.

But they are not uniformly impactful. Voice to the Voiceless, devoted to Martin Luther King Jr.’s papers, is appropriately meditative. Rolls Down Like Water, a chronicle of the American civil rights movement, is a soul-wrenching experience. Despite some effective moments, Spark of Conviction, the exhibit on global human rights, is not nearly as touching.

Voice to the Voiceless: The Morehouse College Martin Luther King Jr. Collection

Voice for the Voiceless

Voice for the Voiceless provides a quiet, elegant environment for MLK’s papers. (Photo by Albert Vecerka/Esto)

Deemed “a sacred space,” this suite of galleries is spare, simple and quiet. Its walls are paneled with honey-colored hickory etched with some of King’s famous words.

The inaugural selection — papers will be displayed on a rotating basis — shows King the man, both ordinary and extraordinary. The display includes, for example, his worn suitcase and some of its contents — shaving cream, razor — and a saying from Mahatma Gandhi that he had written on a scrap of paper and kept in his wallet.

To see his speeches and essays, written in longhand — on scraps of paper, hotel stationery or whatever was at hand — is another form of intimacy with the statesman. They reveal the fluidity of his expression — words “roll down like water” with nary a cross-out — and the urgency of a man who wanted to right systemic injustice and felt his time on earth was limited.

Rolls Down Like Water: The American Civil Rights Movement

 The history of the Civil Rights movement is staged in a series of "black-box theaters" linked by a symbolic gateways. (Copyright Albert Vecerka/Esto and Rockwell Group)

The history of the civil rights movement is staged in a series of “black-box theaters” linked by symbolic gateways. (Copyright Albert Vecerka/Esto and Rockwell Group)

Curator George C. Wolfe, the Broadway producer, drew on his theatrical know-how and the “living newspapers” tradition — performances in which actors staged news articles as dramas — in developing this powerful and haunting chronicle of the movement’s triumphs and human toll.

His aim to put visitors “inside history” is most literally expressed in the lunch counter sit-in display. The protesters demonstrated a tenacity that most of us have never had to summon, but we can get an inkling by sitting at the counter, donning the head phones and listening to the vicious taunts the demonstrators endured. Though the sound loop is just 90 seconds, it is enough to appreciate the force of will and discipline it took to practice passive resistance, much less remain seated for hours.

The designers use newspaper headlines and photos as well as television news reports — playing on vintage monitors, projected on walls — to help create a “you are there” feeling. (The abundant use of broadcast and print media also reflects their role in supporting the movement, whether it was reporters speaking truth to power or savvy civil rights leaders exploiting it to make their case to the world.)

March on Washington

A panoramic film chronicles the 1963 March on Washington. (Photo by Albert Vecerka/Esto)

They shrewdly manipulate space, sequence, color and sound for visceral effect. Most of the galleries, linked by a palette of black, white and red (kind of a Life magazine look), are small, dark and densely populated with text and image. What a sensory surprise to enter the large, white-walled room where a panoramic film of the 1963 March on Washington is displayed on a curved wall. Seeing the crowds massing on the plaza and the solidarity between races and hearing the speeches and the gospel and protest songs that were the soundtrack of the movement is a transcendent and moving experience. I doubt I was alone in appreciating the museum’s thoughtful provision of a tissue box.

The high doesn’t last long. We are soon back in darkness, epitomized by the gallery that recounts King’s assassination. No golden voices here: We are assaulted by a cacophony of competing sounds — Robert Kennedy addressing the nation, Walter Cronkite reporting the grisly news and the staccato music of James Brown, whose concert was broadcast all night to try to distract the rioting crowds.

The scene of MLK Jr's assassination at the Lorraine Motel. (Photo by Albert Vecerka/Esto)

The scene of MLK’s assassination at the Lorraine Motel. (Photo by Albert Vecerka/Esto)

Climbing the stairs to the landing that suggests the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, replete with photos of bloodstains at the scene, is another of those emotional “living history” moments.

The exhibit is unflinching in recounting the ugliness of segregation and the violence of the period. (Parents, be forewarned.) Yet it offers redemption in the determination, heroism and successes of those who fought against Jim Crow, individually recognized in an honor roll room at the end.

Spark of Conviction: The Global Human Rights Movement


Video cones offer a bit of intimacy and mitigate sound bleed. (Photo by Albert Vecerka/Esto)

The physical antithesis of the civil rights exhibit, Spark consists of a single open space. Its light wood floors, white walls, natural light and the sculptural forms of “video cones” suggest a contemporary art gallery.

The exhibit deals with a myriad of different and still evolving situations around the world, among them censorship, political repression, child labor and subjugation of women. The openness accommodates content not suited to a linear arrangement.“The effect is more like a pinball than a chain reaction,” curator Jill Savitt explained. “You are free to go to what catches your eye.”

Like Wolfe, Savitt felt strongly that person-to-person connections were the best way to engage visitors. “Victims-turned-advocates can tell the story in ways no one else can,” she said. “Advocates have courage that comes from real hardship.”

Who Like Me?

Face to face with abuse victims in an exhibit called Who, Like Me, Is Threatened? (Photo by Albert Vecerka/Esto)

Who, Like Me, Is Threatened?, the display in the gallery’s mirrored anteroom, is an exemplar of that principle. Visitors may choose to meet people who share their race, religion, profession or sexuality and hear their stories. They appear like a hologram in your reflection and speak as if directly to you about their lives and the travails they endure because of who they are.

In the same vein, though not as compelling, life-size light boxes of contemporary activists occupy the center of the gallery, their stories told in pictures, video or text on the backs of the panels. Ditto for clever presentation of the villains of history — the Hitlers and Idi Amins of the world — as perps in a police lineup.


Human rights offenders across the globe and history are presented in a police lineup. (Photo by Gene Phillips)

To its credit, the exhibit squarely confronts polarizing issues, such as immigration and same-sex marriage, and it makes a case for the need to recognize our ethical footprint by detailing the human costs behind products we use, like the children who sew our soccer balls instead of going to school.

Yet it doesn’t have the same gut-hitting impact as the civil rights exhibit. Global human rights is just too vast a topic for a single exhibit. The jump from topic to topic and the “pinball” setup makes it hard to focus or get your emotional teeth into any one thing. It doesn’t help that there’s more telling (sometimes preaching) than showing.

It also suffers by comparison to Rolls Down Like Water, which is in some ways an unfair fight. It is much easier to grab people with a narrative, especially an Atlanta-centric story of the civil rights movement, than with an amorphous set of ills far from home. And it certainly doesn’t help that visitors see the civil rights exhibit first. I know I was emotionally spent by that one by the time I got to the human rights exhibit.

Despite the center’s stated aim to “harness Atlanta’s legacy of civil rights to strengthen the worldwide movement for human rights,” human rights seems subsidiary to civil rights, almost an afterthought. Even the amount of space allotted each exhibit — 4,500 square feet for global human rights, which would arguably need more space; 6,750 square feet for civil rights — suggest as much. Perhaps programming will address this imbalance. Spark offers a tremendous depth of information that a docent, teacher or human rights advocate could use to shape many a teachable moment.

In the main, however, the center’s exhibits do their job. Creatively conceived, compellingly told and handsomely executed, they tell stories in ways that promote empathy and understanding. This fledgling cultural institution has already succeeded in expanding Atlanta’s ethical footprint. It is poised to do more.

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