Renovated National Civil Rights Museum opens

National Endowment for the Humanities

April 7, 2014

On a crisp, cool spring day, hundreds crowded in front of the Lorraine Motel in downtown Memphis, Tenn., to hear politicians and activists herald the grand reopening of the National Civil Rights Museum.

The cause for celebration was the $28 million renovation of the museum first opened in September 1991, on the site of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder in 1968.

While many were responsible for raising the capital towards the total goal of a $40 million endowment launched in 2008, longtime museum president Beverly Robertson on this day singled out the National Endowment for the Humanities and its commitment to the cause of civil rights education in America.

An NEH Challenge Grant awarded in 2010 for $750,000, was meant to build long-term endowments. Such grants are intended to support the continued strength of humanities institutions by encouraging fundraising for permanent endowments and capital improvements. The grants also stimulate non-federal giving by requiring a three-to-one match.

A $352,000, grant for the period of 2009 to 2014 was awarded for the renovation of the Lorraine Motel Permanent Exhibits. The official description states it was “ . . .  for the implementation of a new 14,500 square foot permanent exhibition for the history of African American efforts to gain freedom and equality, and the interpretation of the Lorraine Motel historic site at the National Civil Rights Museum.”

“One of the really distinctive things about our review process is that proposals are peer reviewed,” said Karen Mittelman, Director of Public Programs for the NEH, regarding how such grant projects are decided upon. “We convene review panels of experts in the field, so it would have been museum curators and directors, and civil rights scholars that reviewed this and they tell us that it’s worthy of support. I will say that the NEH panel that reviewed the proposal for the new exhibits … gave the project the highest possible ratings, excellent across the board, and that’s very unusual.”

The new exhibits include more than 40 new films, oral histories, and provide increased interactive options for museum goers, bringing the story of struggle and the fight for human rights into the 21st century. Despite such technological advances of touch screen displays and multimedia presentations, the tour begins where it all began, with the exhibit “A Culture of Resistance: Slavery in America 1619 – 1861” and its replicated slave ship’s cargo hold. Here, visitors are encouraged to crouch down into a space the size and shape that men and women abducted from their home would have been forced to inhabit for months during that journey across the middle passage.

It is humbling, and the exhibit on the slave trade is a reminder of the economic circumstances that begat such a shameful chapter in our nation’s history. But it is also the sort of full-scale storytelling the designers and museum curators hoped to instill in the renovation. It’s the telling, not just of the 1950s and 60s-era civil rights moments that so many are familiar with, but from the very beginning and an up-to-the-minute conditions . . . (read more)