National Civil Rights Museum - the power of place and artifacts

Oh my god, I am beyond blown away.  The first major exploration of this workshop was the visit to the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel.   This museum is an amazing example of the power of place and the power of artifacts to tell the story of the past.  This was also an intensely emotional experience, in really unexpected ways.

The museum itself is based in the building, the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King's assassination took place in April of 1968.  Since 1991, the motel building itself has been added to and modified to create an enormous and powerful museum that explains the civil rights movements - its origins in resistance during slavery and in the years after the Civil War, early 20th century activism, and the movement of the 1950s to late 1960s.  There is also a section detailing the questions around the King assassination itself (which I didn't get a chance to see today).

I want to reflect on the place itself now, and then on the power of artifacts. 

The facade of the museum is the motel building itself. 

The signage is original.  The most famous image of this motel is below - this is moments after the shot was fired, that mortally wounded King.  People who were with him are pointing to where they think the shot came from, which turned out to be a boarding house across the street.  (This boardinghouse is also part of the museum, but I did not get to go there today.  That houses the exhibition and discussion of the assassination itself.)  The majority of this museum is about the movement - about activism by everyday people and the most famous leaders of the movement - King, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Bayard Rustin, James Lewis, etc.  But parts of it are also dedicated to this one, awful moment.  This tragedy.   

The signage is original.  The most famous image of this motel is below - this is moments after the shot was fired, that mortally wounded King.  People who were with him are pointing to where they think the shot came from, which turned out to be a boarding house across the street.  (This boardinghouse is also part of the museum, but I did not get to go there today.  That houses the exhibition and discussion of the assassination itself.)

The majority of this museum is about the movement - about activism by everyday people and the most famous leaders of the movement - King, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Bayard Rustin, James Lewis, etc.  But parts of it are also dedicated to this one, awful moment.  This tragedy.   

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How many tragic places have I visited like this?  I visited the Ile de Goree, a slave fortress in Senegal that was the departure point for thousands of enslaved Africans, perhaps including my distant ancestors.  I've been to Auschwitz, which shook me to my core.  I've been to many battlefield sites - the beaches of Normandy in northern France, Civil War battlefields in Maryland and Virginia, Revolutionary War battle sites in my own city of New York.  I've walked streets on a regular basis where more 'everyday' tragedies have taken place - murders both infamous and unknown, car accidents too numerous to mention.  But this shook me.

The ending of the movement section of the museum takes you to two hotel rooms - room 308, which was set up to show you what rooms in this motel looked like in 1968, and room 306, which was the room that King stayed in.  No one stayed in room 306 after his assassination, while the building remained a functioning motel (and then became a SRO later).  Before you can see into room 306, you can see out of a window, from the vantage point of what used to be room 307, this:

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This is the spot in the famous photograph.  Just a soul crushing moment, in many ways.  Perhaps because this was one man, and it is easier to contemplate the tragedy of a single loss, but this is the spot where a man died on a spring day.  And a place where the trajectory of US history changed in ways that are much harder to grasp.  You cannot convey the feeling of the place somewhere else.   A replica of this could be built in many places, but the feeling I don't think can really be conveyed.  This is such a human thing, to imbue a particular spot with such meaning.  I'm changed by seeing this, and I don't even know why.  Room 306 is below, preserved behind glass (in which many other visitors are reflected.) I'm going to need to come back to this - to this day, to what I saw - to figure out how to think about this historically and analytically.

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This visit through the public exhibits was actually the second part of our visit today.  The first part was discussion with the musuem's director of interpretation and a behind the scenes visit to the vault that houses artifacts not on display in the museum.  This portion of the visit nearly made me cry, and left me emotionally on edge and vulnerable for the rest of my visit.  And all of this emotion revolved around two fairly simple (at least physically), objects.

We were not allowed to take pictures of these objects, and I wish I were a better writer to describe what I saw. 

We were shown a number of objects that demonstrate physical aspects of how segregation and discrimination were experienced.  

The object that just destroyed me was in a long, flat grey archival box.  Before she opened the box, the archivist mentioned that this object was brand new to the museum - it arrived last Thursday.  It had been offered to another Memphis museum, which turned it down.  When she opened the box, she pulled out a pile of white fabric, which turned out to be a KKK robe with the full regalia attached - a red cape that looks like a Catholic mozzetta, a braided rope belt, and the hood.  The whole outfit was handmade.

I just couldn't;t handle it.  This was apparently found by someone clearing their father's home after his death, in a trunk with a false bottom.  Clearly a shameful family history at this point.

But I could barely process that - just being in the presence of a physical representation of the forces that wanted (and still want) me gone, dead, or subservient.  Part of me didn't want to be in the room; part of me wanted to burn the fucking thing, and part of me wanted to show it to anyone and everyone to show that hate can be made of fabric.

After this, the archivist took us into a back room, which held all of the documentation that the museum owns about King's assassination.  They have the complete written files of the investigation, but not many physical artifacts.  Except the one that they showed us - the gurney where King died at the hospital.  A hospital gurney is a simple object - I've been on one a number of times, as have many other people I know.  Why was this specific one was practically too painful to lay eyes on?  

Objects and artifacts have enormous power.  We know this, we live it on a daily basis.  But today was so incredibly emotional.  There's no real way to convey this by analyzing the gurney as a historical source through an analytical structure like evaluating origin, purpose, content, value and limitations.  That just doesn't cut it.  At least not today.