Civil and Human Rights Museum to Open in Atlanta

Portraits of rights activists at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. (Credit: Dustin Chambers for The New York Times)

ATLANTA — Far from his typical Broadway haunts, the director George C. Wolfe was walking through a construction site here this spring when, amid a cacophony of saws and drills, he stopped and stood before what was to become a replica of a lunch counter that he said would claw visitors back into history.

The display at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, Mr. Wolfe said, would allow people to don headphones, rest their hands on the counter and hear a volley of heckles similar to what demonstrators heard during the civil rights movement.

“You’re in the moment,” Mr. Wolfe, the center’s chief creative officer, said, his voice rising. “You’re in the times. You’re experiencing the euphoria and the danger that was existing at the time.”

For Mr. Wolfe and the museum’s supporters, summoning the South’s past in a dramatic way is an unequaled opportunity for Atlanta to showcase a present well beyond CNN, Coca-Cola and a vast international airport. Civic boosters contend that the museum will fuel tourism, broaden the city’s reputation and become a place that could host international human rights events.

Whether the $80 million complex — backed by a mix of public and private funding, with the land donated by Coca-Cola — will fulfill the entirety of that lofty vision is a question that could take decades to answer. But Doug Shipman, the center’s chief executive, said it would be both a vivid link to the city’s rich civil rights history and a prod toward social change.

“This isn’t about specialists,” Mr. Shipman said. “This isn’t about academics. This is trying to take a 15-year-old and move them to interest and inspiration.”

The center, set along the northern edge of Pemberton Place, an area honoring the pharmacist who created Coca-Cola, is scheduled to open on Monday and will be the latest Southern museum to honor the region’s civil rights heritage. Birmingham, Ala., and Memphis are among the cities that host popular museums, and another is planned in Jackson, Miss.

Atlanta already has a celebrated civil rights complex — the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, which includes Dr. King’s birthplace and Ebenezer Baptist Church — as well as the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum. But people here say the new center symbolizes a deeper embrace of public and cultural issues.

“The city that is too busy to hate was, until recently, the city that was too busy to think about its history,” said Jamil S. Zainaldin, the president of the Georgia Humanities Council. “I think Atlanta is catching up to itself now. It is now a city with a heritage.”

But the center does not focus solely on civil rights history. To Mr. Shipman and his supporters, its parallel emphasis on contemporary human rights issues — one gallery includes a news ticker and a map documenting the state of freedom around the world — represents a fresh approach to teaching and applying the lessons of history.

“If it was the National Center for Civil Rights, you would not see the support that you’re seeing for the National Center for Civil and Human Rights,” said Ernest L. Greer, an Atlanta lawyer who is the chairman of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and a member of the museum’s board of directors.

Backers hope the center will help Atlanta attract significant international gatherings, like the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates, which is scheduled to take place here in 2015.

But some experts are skeptical that the city will ever be the site of landmark international agreements, partly because they see the museum as more of a tourist magnet than a center of action.

“The marketing and the development has taken priority over the substance of the content,” said Dabney P. Evans, the executive director of Emory University’s Institute of Human Rights, who said the center still needed to establish the standing that would allow it to entice and organize major events.

“Having a facility and a museum is not enough if you don’t have the credibility,” Dr. Evans said. “There are lots of other places to go, and they may not have a big center, but they do have the substantive subject matter expertise and the credibility.”

The center could, though, become a major asset for Atlanta as the country observes anniversaries tied to civil rights in the coming years, and tourism officials believe it will help the city lure more travelers.

“Especially among millennials, there’s a renewed interest in understanding that history, and Atlanta is going to certainly be a beneficiary of that,” said William Pate, the president and chief executive of the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Some researchers added a note of caution.

“As much as I wish I could say that society were so driven to go to Atlanta specifically for this new facility — and there are certainly some people who will be — it’s kind of one of those secondary sites that people will put along with the vacation because they’re already in Atlanta,” said Cynthia L. Willming, a University of Florida lecturer who has researched tourism trends.

But for some people here, the economic and reputational consequences, whatever they may be, are less important than what they see as a coming-of-age moment for Atlanta.

“It is saying: ‘We have grown up now. How do we want to own this?’ ” Dr. Zainaldin said. “We’re not selling commerce. We’re selling something that has been here all along, and now we’re trying owning it.”

article by Alan Blinder via

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