MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The climax of the sweeping new exhibition at the National Civil Rights Museum here is almost painfully mundane. An open container of milk and a half-drunk cup of coffee sit on a table near a 1960s television topped by rabbit-ear antennas. A peach-colored bedspread is pulled back, and the remains of a catfish lunch are nearby. Pale yellow curtains are open to the balcony outside. We are looking at Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel.
This is the room that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. left for a moment on April 4, 1968, to go to the balcony. That was when James Earl Ray, an escaped convict with a heritage of hatred, aimed a rifle and took his shot.
The museum, which opened in 1991 as one of the nation’s first civil rights museums, was constructed around the room that was left behind, its contents reproduced behind glass. The entire museum is also inside the former motel. But, mostly, you would hardly know it.
Though the exterior shows the Lorraine pretty much as it once was — a flat-roofed, two-story black-owned motel, where black travelers regularly stayed — the exhibition leaves that world far behind, taking us on a long and compelling journey, now reinterpreted for the first time in a generation.
A $28 million reconstruction of the museum opens today, the day after the assassination’s 46th anniversary, with a new two-story-high lobby, exhibits with archival videos and touch screens, and 52,000 square feet of new and altered exhibition space.
The narrative still leads to the same room, but the result, despite some flaws, is now among the best we can find, setting a standard for museums exploring civil rights.
While establishing a museum where King was killed once inspired criticism, now some 200,000 people visit each year. In 2002, the museum expanded, with new exhibitions in two annex buildings, incorporating the fleabag rooming house from which Ray had stalked his prey.
With the rethinking of the main exhibition space, the museum is building on a trend it also helped inspire: Multiple museums in the South are beginning to confront the region’s troubled racial past at sites and in cities where history is still memory. This is an amazing transformation in a region where, a half-century ago, commentary about racial civil liberties was often made with hoses, truncheons, jail cells, and knotted ropes.
Beverly Robertson, the president of the National Civil Rights Museum, said the museum has raised all the money for its reconstruction, along with $2.5 million of a planned $12 million endowment. The museum’s team of scholars, led by historians Hasan Kwame Jeffries and Stephanie J. Shaw, both of Ohio State University, has overseen a narrative that has belatedly become a core part of U.S. history.
We begin with a survey of the slave trade, including a partial reproduction of a slave ship galley in which visitors can crouch beside cramped, shackled figures. Then, in glimpses of the Jim Crow years, restrictions undermine hard-won reforms, while the achievements of remarkable black men and women counter violence and humiliation.
By the time the civil rights movement begins, we feel wonder both at what once existed and at how difficult it was to overturn. In a mock courtroom, a video describes how Charles Hamilton Houston, the first black editor of Harvard Law Review and later dean of Howard University’s law school, strategized legal challenges to the Jim Crow doctrine of “separate but equal.” His campaign led to the 1954 landmark ruling Brown v. Board of Education.
Some highlights from the museum’s old incarnation show life-size figures in the midst of protest, including a Montgomery, Ala., bus in which a sculpture of Rosa Parks defiantly sits (the actual bus was restored and is in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.). Other galleries feature the Freedom Riders, the Freedom Summer, and the Selma to Montgomery March.
It is as if we were witnessing Stations of the Cross. In one gallery, visitors can sing along (“Oh, Freedom”) with videos of protesters in a church in Albany, Ga. When the journey is nearly done, you can hear King’s speech delivered the night before he was murdered — “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” — in which he seemed to anticipate his death.
This epic is also a tale of mundane places: lunch counters, buses, motels, schoolrooms. Yet lives were sacrificed over the right to use them, one reason Room 306, with its portrayal of life interrupted, is so affecting.
Just before his murder, King asked that Take My Hand, Precious Lord, be sung at a dinner he was about to attend. It was sung at his funeral instead. We hear it as we gaze at Room 306. The song’s pleas for guidance and strength, the room’s frozen tableau, and the museum’s survey of riots and mourning — all point to a project left unfinished.