• Print

    National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis will have presence during one-year hiatus

    Civil rights museum's main building will close a year, but balcony will open to public for the first time

    Michael Lollar - The Commercial Appeal -

    At the end of the day Monday, the main building of the National Civil Rights Museum will close for a year, while the museum gets the biggest makeover in its 21-year history.

    However, the museum's main attraction, the balcony where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, soon will be accessible to the public for the first time.

    Opened in 1991, the museum tells the story of civil rights in the United States from 1619 to 1968. The story unfolds behind the walls of the old Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was staying when he was shot by a sniper in 1968.

    King stood on the balcony outside his room, No. 306, when the shot was fired, and it is the balcony that produces "chill bumps" for nearly 200,000 visitors a year, says museum president Beverly Robertson. Visitors enter the museum through a brick courtyard beneath the balcony, and, "We thought while we are under renovation what a powerful thing it would be for them to be able to step onto the balcony.

    "It is the most significant and most important artifact we have as part of the National Civil Rights Museum," says Robertson. The balcony has always been off limits except for special guests who have stood on the site as part of anniversary events commemorating King's death.

    The target date for the balcony opening is Nov. 19, says Tracy Lauritzen Wright, director of administration and special projects for the museum.

    Visitors will go up a stairwell on the south end of the balcony and walk to the spot where King stood. From there, they will be able to see through the window into King's room where a full ashtray tells of a habit the Baptist minister tried to hide.

    Robertson said visitors will hear a recording of Mahalia Jackson singing King's favorite song, "Precious Lord," as they descend a stairwell on the north end of the balcony.

    A lift is being built to get disabled visitors to the balcony.

    During the renovation, visitors also still can explore what the museum calls the Legacy Building, an annex across Mulberry Street from the main building. The annex, opened in 2002, includes the boardinghouse from which the fatal shot was fired at King. The exhibit tells the story of the investigation into King's murder, the arrest and eventual confession of James Earl Ray and the legacy of the civil rights movement since 1968.

    In addition, the museum plans to install a vintage exhibit, "Freedom Sisters," in a building immediately north of the Legacy Building. That building is owned by former University of Memphis and NBA basketball player Elliot Perry, who joined the civil rights museum board last summer. Robertson said the traveling exhibit, sponsored by Ford Motor Co., and a portion of it was on display at the museum several years ago.

    When the main building reopens in early 2014, it will be with a new look, several new exhibits and a way of retelling the civil rights story in the 21st century. Visitors can step up to a U.S. map, touch a state on a screen and see how desegregation in that state was affected after the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled in a Topeka, Kan., case that separate-but-equal schools for blacks and whites were unconstitutional.

    The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling was a landmark in the civil rights movement, and the new design of the exhibit will include classroom and courtroom settings.

    Like that exhibit, each gallery of the museum will have color and design themes that set them apart from succeeding galleries, says Wright. They also will have interactive features that are part of the $27 million cost of the museum renovations.

    Robertson said about $23 million of those costs have been raised so far through major contributions, including $5 million from the Hyde Family Foundations, $4.95 million from the state, $2.25 million from FedEx and $1 million each from the Ford Motor Company Fund, Links Inc., the city of Memphis, Southeastern Asset Management Inc. and the Longleaf Partners Fund.

    The 7,000-pound bronze statue, "Movement to Overcome," in the current lobby entrance of the museum will be moved to a newly designed two-story lobby.

    General museum admissions will be reduced from $13 to $10 during the hiatus, with special rates for groups of 20 or more.

    The museum estimates it has been visited by 3.5 million people since 1991, and education director Barbara Andrews says some visitors have returned 15 times. "People look at it and suddenly realize, 'Oh my goodness, this is our story.'"