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In 1991, the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn., became America's first major museum to paint a broad picture of the civil rights movement. Its content hasn't changed much since then. But this Saturday after a nearly $28 million renovation that took 18 months, the museum will reopen with a new design that aims to appeal to an older generation as well as a post-civil-rights-era audience.
About 200,000 people each year file into the courtyard of what was once the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. They gaze at the second-floor balcony where Martin Luther King Jr. stood before he was assassinated.
That site marks the epicenter of a cultural earthquake. Executive director Beverly Robertson said it was time to take a fresh look at the civil rights movement through the eyes of the people who gave it life.
"We recognize that it was the everyday regular old person who said, 'I'm going to take a stand for justice,' " she says. "And they stood up, and they spoke out and they made a difference."
To inspire the conscience of a younger generation, the museum first had to find new ways of getting inside its head. More than 20 years ago, its founders covered the walls in text to make up for what they thought was missing from history books. But students today, with Internet access and shorter attention spans, were skipping past big chunks of history.
"We had to blend history, technology, information boards, artifacts, audio, video to create what we believe is an engaging museum," Robertson says.
The new exhibits immerse visitors in major chapters of the movement. They can sit at a segregated lunch counter, in a courtroom, or on a vintage city bus next to Rosa Parks. News reports and famous speeches fill the air with urgency. One highlight remains the same: the hotel room where King spent his final hours. For curators, the biggest challenge was relating all of this to a post-civil-rights-era audience.
"For an older generation, the master narrative says that we are moving toward overcoming; for a younger generation, it is that we have overcome," says Dr. Hasan Jeffries, an associate professor of history at Ohio State University.
Jeffries, who led the team of scholars involved in the reinterpretation, says he wanted the museum to be a sacred space — but he didn't just want it to be a shrine to Martin Luther King Jr.
"The movement involved so many more people, both known and unknown, that with the death of King did not come the death of the movement," Jeffries says.
For many organizations, the museum represents a symbol of change. Labor unions, gay rights groups and others often rally under the balcony where King was slain. In that sense, no matter how the National Civil Rights Museum portrays history on the inside, on the outside, the story is still being written.
Beverly Robertson, the executive director, believes reaching these new generations is crucial.
"I think if young people leave with this understanding that they too can be the personification of the civil rights movement — in that they have a role to play — that's a central message of what I'd like people to take away," she says.
The museum's rededication kicks off Friday evening in Memphis with a candlelight vigil. It is the 46th anniversary of King's death.