ATLANTA — When the Center for Civil and Human Rights opens on Monday, its creators promise visitors more than just a museum, but an experience.
They hired Tony award-winning playwright and director George C. Wolfe to design interactive exhibits to bring the Civil Rights Movement alive for contemporary audiences, including those born long after the days of segregation.
One exhibit attempts to recreate the experience of an African-American sitting at a whites-only lunch counter during the student sit-in movement. Museum guests sit at a counter while headphones blare insults and threats. A stopwatch measures how long they can sit without moving their hands from the table.
For obvious reasons, visitors are not subjected to the spitting and other physical humiliation the actual protesters faced back in the day. However, Julia Humbles, a “Freedom Rider” during the 1960s, says the center provides a good illustration of what she and others experienced.
“I think it’s a wonderful place for people to see the struggles,” Humbles said. “And I think it’s for our young people to actually realize that whatever freedoms they are exercising have come as a result of the fact that people shed blood, sweat and tears.”
Another gallery features a continuously rotating collection of personal papers written by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., an Atlanta native.
But CEO Doug Shipman says what sets his center apart from other civil rights museums is that it uses the past as a springboard to current events.
“This isn’t a memorial,” Shipman said. “Atlanta didn’t experience the violence of other places. So, I think that allows us to talk about legacy. What does the Civil rights movement mean today? How can it inspire people today? What is it that connects it with contemporary human rights?”
A third space in the museum looks at current human rights issues around the world. Near the entrance to the gallery, visitors are asked to tap a label describing themselves, such as their race, gender or religion. An image appears in a mirror, showing someone in another part of the world who faces discrimination for having the same trait.
“There’s really no other place in the United States in which human rights around the world are explored,” Shipman said. “And I think that’s the real innovation here.”
Located next to other popular Atlanta tourist spots, including the World of Coca-Cola and Georgia Aquarium, Shipman said the center hopes to attract more than 400,000 visitors each year, while making a lasting impression on each.
Jonathan Serrie joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in April 1999 and currently serves as a correspondent based in the Atlanta bureau.