Museum Spotlight: NCCHR in Atlanta, GA

NCCHR - streettrotter

The American electorate is fresh from the third presidential debate and weeks away from the most contentious election season in recent history.

In this time of political chaos, though, it’s important to recognize two things. One, that this presidential contest is not the first contentious one. Two, that this isn’t the first time the United States has seen protest and civil unrest.

The Center for Civil and Human Rights (NCCHR) in Atlanta, Georgia tasks itself with commemorating Atlanta native Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his leadership of the American Civil Rights Movement. The museum opened in 2014, according to NBC News, and provides an immersive educational experience for visitors. I visited the museum last spring as part of a class trip and wanted to give it some timely and well-deserved attention on the blog. It is unlike any other museum I have ever been to.

  1. INTERACTIVITY

Unlike other museums, the interactive elements at the NCCHR are never cheesy or distracting – they are built into the experience.

The Civil Rights Movement section of the museum draws visitors through each major turning point of the era, in chronological order. And each room has its own interactive components. The March on Washington section has phones on the walls that play songs by artists who helped drive the movement. For example, on one phone, visitors can choose from a selection of songs by Mahalia Jackson, a gospel singer who performed at the March before Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

The most striking example of interactivity at the NCCHR is the lunch counter simulator. The simulator recreates what it was like to stage a lunch counter sit-in, a protest in which black and white activists would sit at racially segregated lunch counters side-by-side.

You put on headphones, and a timer begins. In the headphones, a recording shouts insults and screams epithets at you. Occasionally your seat jerks, mimicking a kick. All the while, the timer ticks on, testing your endurance. How long can you last?

I didn’t try the lunch counter, but one of my classmates did, and she did not last long. Again, this is not some dorky pseudo-experience — everyone I talked to about the lunch counter said that it felt alarmingly real. The interactive elements of the NCCHR bring an immediacy to history that is difficult to find at other museums.

  1. INCREDIBLE MUSEUM DESIGN

It’s obvious now, but the NCCHR is more than just pictures and placards on walls. The museum surrounds visitors with engaging visuals. In one room, there is a bus covered in mugshots of arrested Freedom Riders, black and white activists who protested segregation by riding interstate buses together.  In another, mounted on the wall are portraits of the four young girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, in the style of a stained-glass church windows.

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The mugshots of arrested Freedom Riders, printed on the side of a bus inside the NCCHR.

But not all the museum’s visuals are as in-your-face as the bus.  The museum is so immersive that some of the techniques used to put visitors in the past are not noticeable at first. And when you finally realize what you’re looking at, the effect is striking.

As the museum leads you towards 1968, the year in which Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, a set of stairs leads you up past a series of photos of Dr. King’s assassination. He was shot while standing on a balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.

Those visuals are of the powerful, in-your-face kind; they convey violence and senseless tragedy.  But after spending a few minutes looking at those pictures, it took me a beat to realize that I was standing on the same Lorraine Motel balcony. The stairs’ railing was designed to look just like the balcony Dr. King died on.

  1. EXTENDING THE MESSAGE

The museum doesn’t just focus on the Civil Rights Movement. As the name may suggest, the Center for Civil and Human Rights also devotes a section to human rights, highlighting different global issues through different interactive screens and booths. Other parts of the exhibit showcase infamous human rights violators past and present, such as Josef Stalin and Ratko Mladic. All of it underscores the ability of everyday people to fight intolerance and injustice.

In my opinion, the civil rights section of the museum is the stronger section.  The Civil Rights Movement gets entire floors, while other huge, global human rights issues only get little booths. I can see why they set it up that way, but one section is definitely more powerful than the other. However, I still appreciated the attempt to trace a line from Dr. King’s legacy to the 21st century.

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Two hanging portraits of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. inside the NCCHR.

The NCCHR provides an interesting and educational experience that I’d recommend to anyone, especially in times like these where things may seem hopeless. As the museum emphasizes, individuals can work towards a larger goal together and bring about appreciable change — keep this in mind, American readers, as we head towards election day.