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Museum Makeover

National Civil Rights Museum unveils plans for redesign.

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History may not change, but the way we interpret the past does, according to African-American history scholar Hasan Jeffries.

Jeffries, a faculty member of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University, is one of the lead advisers for the National Civil Rights Museum's renovation plan. He suggested adding exhibits that focus on "the voices of ordinary people" rather than just "great men."

"The museum opened [19] years ago. Since then, scholars have begun to look at history from a different lens. We've learned of new characters," Jeffries said at a public meeting on the museum's redesign last week.

In late 2008, museum officials announced they would begin at least a $10 million renovation. Since then, they've consulted with scholars such as Jeffries to improve exhibits, and they're working with Howard + Revis Design Services of Washington D.C. to redesign the museum and grounds.

New exhibits will highlight the civil rights struggle of "working-class people, poor people, and women," according to Jeffries. "During the renovation, we'll be breaking down some of the information into more digestible nuggets."

For example, the tour will begin with a new film that outlines emancipation during the Civil War. Jeffries said the film would set the foundation for exhibits to come and help patrons understand dense material.

The museum also plans to expand exhibits that deal with the civil rights struggle in other parts of the country outside of the South.

The tour of the main museum will end with a film to prepare visitors to see the "Legacy" exhibit in the former rooming house where James Earl Ray allegedly fired the fatal shot. Outdoor history panels and listening posts will be added in the courtyard.

"The history panels will give visitors something to look at when we're closed," said Tracy Lauritzen Wright, director of administration and special projects for the museum.

Additional signage outside the museum, as well as along South Main and Beale Street, will help direct tourists to the site.

National Civil Rights Museum director Beverly Robertson said the renovations and exhibit redesign are overdue since the average lifespan of a museum exhibit is 10 years. The civil rights museum has had the same exhibits since it opened in 1991.

The first phase of the renovation should begin in February and last through June. During that time, the museum will be removing some artifacts.

"We may have to close some areas during renovation, but we will not close the entire museum," Robertson said. "We'll have the six listening posts outside before we close anything so people can still hear the story. And the King room will always remain open."

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