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Rights Renovation

The National Civil Rights Museum is aiming for more technology, accessibility.

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In the National Civil Rights Museum's opening gallery — titled "Unremitting Struggle" — a giant cut-out of Abraham Lincoln dominates a busy wall. There are pictures of the earliest civil rights leaders, newspaper headlines, placards of information, and a timeline.

On the opposite wall hangs a single framed map. It depicts the museum's emergency exits.

"One of the firms suggested we could use both walls," says Gwen Harmon, the museum's marketing director.

After 17 years, the National Civil Rights Museum is planning a $10 to $15 million renovation, mostly to make the museum more accessible — in every way — to visitors.

"Our lobby is beautiful," Harmon says, "but there's no place to queue up tour groups. They hang out outside."

The museum started the process with 12 design firms. Recently, it asked the top four firms to present at a public forum what they see as the museum's exhibit and interactive opportunities.

During a recent visit to the museum, about 100 tweens from Nashville — most wearing hoodies and museum headphones — stood four and five deep in the first gallery. For those close to the wall, there was a wealth of information. For those a few feet behind them, they could easily see, well, Abraham Lincoln.

"With this group of energetic young people, some are going to read it. Some aren't," Harmon says. "It's text, text, text."

With the renovation, the museum hopes to make its exhibits more accessible and more interactive.

"What museum visitors expect today is a lot different from what they expected 17 years ago," says Tracy Lauritzen Wright, the museum's director of administration/special projects and project director for the renovation.

Aquariums allow visitors to touch stingrays and sea anemones; D.C.'s Newseum includes an interactive newsroom where visitors can see what it's like to be a reporter or photographer. (They call it "Sitting in the Hot Seat.")

"We're not a science center," Lauritzen Wright says. "We don't want the latest and greatest technology just because. We want what is going to help us tell the story."

It's not only museum visitors who have changed since the museum opened. The world has changed, as well. For starters, several similar museums now exist.

"When the museum was first designed, we didn't want to leave anything out," Lauritzen Wright says, noting that schools today teach more about the civil rights movement. "An encyclopedic presentation is no longer the expectation."

The museum also is cognizant of the need to update its current galleries. For instance, one section — which accommodates only about four people comfortably — focuses on the 1962 integration of Ole Miss.

"They just hosted a historic presidential debate," Harmon says. "Ole Miss alumni would like that reflected here, as well."

Other ideas for the renovation include listening posts outside the museum, a new orientation film at the beginning of the tour, and adding video of 1950s-era Montgomery "outside" the bus windows in the museum's "Montgomery Bus Boycott" exhibit.

"We don't want so much technology that we lose the soul of this place," Harmon says. "That's going to be the biggest challenge."

But it's one that will probably be easily met, especially given the historic nature of the site. Every firm in the running thinks the King room, the place where Martin Luther King Jr. spent his last moments, should get more significant treatment.

"Our purpose has shifted," Lauritzen Wright says. "It used to be a lot about commemoration. Today, it's more about helping people find their place in the civil rights movement."

The museum hopes to pick a firm by the end of the year and begin the design process in January. Construction should begin in early 2010.

The National Civil Rights Museum is offering discounted admission from now until the end of December.

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