Written for Museum Practices, Fall 2010
Having just recently moved to Memphis, I have not been fortunate enough to visit all of the museums in the area as of yet. I had heard several things about the National Civil Rights Museum from fellow museum enthusiasts both good and bad. Luckily, a friend of mine from high school, Sara, is currently interning at the museum and offered to give me a private tour of the facilities. There were several things about the complex that I found troubling from a museum studies perspective, but also several things that stood out as exceptional.
I started my tour of the museum in the older building. My first impression was that there is too much to read and that the information is too cluttered together. The timeline in the first exhibit is beneficial to those with no background of African-American history. I found it odd that this first section had few artifacts or collections, but Sara explained to me that the museum was originally an informational, not collections centered, exhibit.
There are a few artifacts such as a Ku Klux Klan robe, original segregation signs, and brochures which help to explain what the printed words are explaining. One of the items in the first section of the museum appears to be a uniform. There is no explanation or label around this uniform that is in a case. Sara explained to me that it is a porter’s uniform, and there is a small picture of a porter wearing a similar uniform. Since there are so few artifacts in the first section of the museum, there should be no excuse for their being unlabeled.
As the collage of pictures and words continues, it dos meld together with more artifacts and more interesting exhibits. A few of the pictures used in the collage are of very poor quality and grainy, which is understandable because of the technology of the time in which they were taken. However, perhaps a better picture could have been chosen for the centerpiece photo.
The museum has a very nice flow which makes it simple to follow without the confusion one sometimes encounters in a museum. As the exhibits continue, I feel they get more interesting with more artifacts and interaction. In the Brown v. Education section, a television plays actual video clips regarding the case and its effect on the population. The façade of the Little Rock High School is also impressive. Again, the video-clips that are playing and the statues were a nice touch.
One of my favorite exhibits in the older section of the Civil Rights Museum is the interactive bus exhibit. The visitor enters a bus from the 1960s and sits in the front seat. This activates a speaker which plays the voice of a bus driver telling the visitors that they must move to the back of the bus. It goes on chastising those sitting in the front seat until finally threatening them with arrest. I think that it is a great representation of the situation that Rosa Parks and all African-Americans lived with everyday that people today might not understand.
Also creative is the recreation of the Woolworth’s counter with mannequins representing the students who enacted a sit-in at the lunch counter. Again, video clips are shown that explain what was going on and people’s responses to the protests. Across from this display is another well-produced display of Freedom Songs. This display plays various songs and has sheet music and information about the songs that are being played.
Another effective exhibit is the recreation of a fire-bombed bus from the Freedom Rides. Though the bus and the thoughts it evokes are great, again there are not a lot of explanation or information labels about the event. Past this is a little alcove with telephones and the recordings of conversations between a government official in the south and President John F. Kennedy. Though this display is creative, when I visited one of the speakers was not working and I could barely hear one of the sides of the conversation.
I thought that the recreation of the street corner in Birmingham is very effective. The giant TV screen showing the violence against the protesting children helps visitors to see the violence inflicted upon those children by the law enforcement. However, as soon as visitors turn around from the news clip, they see that the display case behind them is literally falling apart. Pictures and display text within one of the mirrored cases has fallen from mounts and has not been repaired. Sara explained to me that the case had been poorly designed and were not easily opened.
As the museum path continues on, the visitor comes upon a recreation of a jail cell from Birmingham. There is some explanation that this is what the cell that Martin Luther King, Jr. was held in after the Birmingham protests would have looked like. Around the next corner is a cell with several cots in it, but there is no explanation anywhere near it that I could find to tell what this was. It is obviously a jail cell, but I would never have known what the story was behind this cell as it had no labels or display case explaining how it was used.
There are a few interactive exhibits throughout the museum that really draw the visitor in. One that sticks out in my mind in the older section is a wheel that visitors can spin to see if they would have the privilege to register to vote that day. This really shows the problems registering to vote that African-Americans faced during the Civil Rights Movement.
The next section is very confusing to me. Sara explained that the wooden frame that was built against the wall is a representation of a Freedom School. However, the information contained within this frame is about politics. Information about the Freedom Schools is across from the frame and in an alcove that I would probably have missed had I not been directed there.
One of the next very attention-grabbing displays was that of the Memphis sanitation workers. The angle from which visitors view this exhibit (from above) is original and appealing. Again, there was not an immediate understanding or explanation about this. There was a television mounted above the viewing area, but when I visited it was turned off.
I feel that the recreation of the hotel rooms in the Lorraine was very well done. Evidence pictures were used to represent what the hotel room looked like while King was staying there before his death. Visitors are able to stand where King slept and view where he was standing when he was killed. After exiting the main NCRM building, visitors walk across the lawn to the boarding house where King’s assassin stood to take his shot. The walkway to the elevators that take visitors to the main upstairs exhibit has photographs of King’s funeral with digital captions which are well-done.
Again, the recreations of the rooms as they were in the 1960s are very well done. Evidence photos are shown of each room, and the way they are set up today is very similar to how they looked when James Earl Ray was staying at the boarding house. One of my favorite things of the whole museum was in the boarding house space. A case filled with the evidence used during Ray’s trial is set up with touch-screen computer monitors on either side. Visitors can use the monitors to pick and choose a piece of evidence from the case and learn what this piece is and how it was used in the trial. To me, this interactive display was a great way to educate visitors in a fun way.
As visitors exit the museum the exhibits give a message that though things have greatly improved for African-Americans since the Civil Rights Movement, there are still many changes that need to take place. There is a message of hope which leaves the visitor feeling as though things are going to continue to change for the good. The exit is through the gift shop which is, of course, a great marketing scheme that probably brings in great revenue to the museum.
Overall, the museum is quite nice. There are several technical problems with cases and displays. The flow is easily followed, but the lack of labels and explanation for exhibits is distracting and troubling. Audio tours are offered for children and adults in both English and Spanish which is a very good thing. There is always room for improvement and renovation in any museum, however, and this is no exception.