Bold New Museums Herald Growing Interest in U.S. Civil Rights Movement

Article excerpt

The bigger, bolder museums signal an era of scholarship and interest in the history of both civil rights and African-Americans.

Drive through many parts of the Deep South in the United States and you will find a monument or a museum dedicated to civil rights.

A visitor can peer into the motel room in Memphis, Tennessee, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was staying when he was shot, or stand near the lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, where four young men began a sit-in that helped end segregation.

Other institutions are less dramatic, like the Tubman African American Museum in Macon, Georgia, where toilet fixtures from segregated restrooms are on display alongside folk art.

But now, a second generation of bigger, bolder museums is about to emerge.

Atlanta; Jackson, Mississippi; and Charleston, South Carolina, all have projects in the works. Coupled with the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, which breaks ground in Washington this week, they represent nearly $750 million worth of plans.

Collectively, they signal a new era of scholarship and interest in the history of both civil rights and African-Americans. "We're at that stage where the civil rights movement is the new World War II," said Doug Shipman, chief executive for the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, a $100 million project that is set to break ground in Atlanta this summer and open in 2014.

"It's a move to the next phase of telling this story," he said.

The collection at the museum, which is to be set on two and half acres, or about a hectare, of prime real estate in central Atlanta donated by Coca-Cola, will include 10,000 documents and artifacts from Dr. King and a series of paintings based on the life of Representative John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat who was instrumental in organizing student sit-ins, bus boycotts and nonviolent protests.

Like many of the new museums, the Atlanta center aims higher than the first wave of monuments to the period. It will link the civil rights movement to global human rights, exploring how, for example, Dr. King's speeches helped fuel the Arab Spring.

Though the momentum for the new museums is strong, the recession has shaved the size and shape of some projects, and raising money can be difficult.

John Fleming, the director of the International African American Museum planned for Charleston and a former president of the Association of African American Museums, points to the United States National Slavery Museum in Fredericksburg, Virginia. That project, led by former Governor L. Douglas Wilder, was supposed to open on 38 acres in 2004. It recently went into bankruptcy, and people who donated money and artifacts are upset.

Although what exactly went wrong is still being debated, Mr. Fleming said that in part the project aimed too high and did not adjust as the economy softened. Mr. Fleming's own project began as an $80 million museum of 70,000 square feet, or about 6,500 square meters. Now, it is smaller by $30 million and 20,000 square feet.

"Most black museums have difficulty raising funds," Mr. Fleming said. "Being truthful, I don't think people in the African-American community have stepped up to the plate in terms of making significant donations to these projects."

Other directors disagree, saying a generation whose parents or grandparents lived through the 1950s and 1960s are now elected officials and on boards, where they have influence over where cultural dollars are spent. …