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July 14, 2014

Atlanta Unveils the National Center for Civil and Human Rights

By Ingrid Skjong | Museums

Atlanta Unveils the National Center for Civil and Human Rights
Photo courtesy of Albert Vecerka & Rockwell Group

Sometimes there is no denying a good idea. In 2005, now late civil rights icon Evelyn Lowery told then mayor of Atlanta Shirley Franklin that the city needed a civil rights museum. Politician and activist Andrew Young came next with the same suggestion. Nine years later, after generous gifts from local entities (a substantial land donation from Coca-Cola) and mounting excitement, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights opened its doors on June 23.

Using the American civil rights movement as a framework, the 42,000-square-foot museum weaves a compelling, immersive experience aimed at bringing an integral point in history to life. “This is really created for generations that didn’t live through the civil rights movement,” says Judith Service Montier, the center’s vice president of marketing. “To help those individuals understand history in a way that inspires them and empowers them to create a more just and human future.”

Thanks to an unorthodox design team—including Tony award–winning theater director George C. Wolfe, curator of the center’s “Rolls Down Like Water: The American Civil Rights Movement” gallery; architect Philip Freelon (in partnership with architecture/interior-design firm HOK), who co-created the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington, D.C.; and exhibition designer David Rockwell—storytelling and a sense of place play key roles. In one exhibit, visitors can sit at an authentic lunch counter and hear equally genuine audio of racially fueled taunts and jeers. In another, a mock-up of a Freedom Riders bus is covered with photographs of the diverse people who went on the road throughout the South for equality. A rotating selection of pieces from the Morehouse College Martin Luther King, Jr. Collection brings a familiar face into clearer focus.

The Human Rights Gallery takes things a step further, illustrating the global struggle for parity and acceptance. And while the hope is to pull in as many as 400,000 visitors a year, the ultimate mission goes beyond tourism statistics, putting an American movement at the heart of a decidedly global goal. “You see that it created a vocabulary that is used around the world in other human-rights struggles,” says Service Montier. “You’ll see this throughout the exhibits, [like] the women in Saudi Arabia that are fighting for the right to drive calling themselves freedom drivers.” 100 Ivan Allen Jr. Blvd.; 678-999-8990; civilandhumanrights.org.