Sunday, July 26, 2009
The National Civil Rights Museum
I spent some time Friday at the National Civil Rights Museum (warning: uplifting music) in Memphis. It's an interesting place, but like a lot of history-type museums, it's a little bit problematic. It's seriously heavy on text panels and skimpy on artifacts (especially the first section, all the way up to the Civil War), which causes a lot of bottlenecking. But I really liked it on the whole. I was unnerved a little when I turned a corner and was literally standing looking from the insidethrough a glass wall at the actual room at the Lorraine Motel where MLK Jr stayed (the museum is built in and around the motel). You can look out the window and see the spot where he died one foot from your eyeballs. It's weird because you don't know it's coming - I mean, you know where you are in the Civil Rights timeline at all times in the museum but you don't really expect to get to stand in the room. They're nuts about you taking pictures (they say it's about various people owning trademarks blah blah blah but really I think it's about selling postcards in one of the two gift shops) so I don't have a photo of it, but I will say: it's something else. A very strange feeling.
Then - again without warning - you go to an annex where you're standing in the bathroom from where James Earl Ray aimed his rifle. The window is open just so, just enough to squeeze a rifle barrel through. It's positively freaky and I noticed a lot of people - really, a lot - skipped this altogether the minute they got a whiff of what it was. Then there's a whole other enormous room devoted to the manhunt for Ray and another for the Did Ray Act Alone? conspiracy theories. I thought this was a mistake - you get a whole room of this but Selma gets one wall in the other building? It seemed disproportionate and even though you get a little bit of hope after that - a room of recent Civil Rights achievements - you almost come away with a little sense of hopelessness because so much square footage is devoted to James Earl Ray.
But everyone should go - it doesn't feel like medicine. It's really interesting and that real Lorraine Motel room thing...well, I can't even explain it.
They did miss a big chance though - there should be a place to eat and it should be designed like a vintage lunch counter.