Civil Rights Center

National Center for Civil and Human Rights prepares to open

In downtown Atlanta, sharing prime real estate with the World of Coke and the Georgia Aquarium, there is a new silhouette on the skyline.

It is a lens-shaped structure with two curved exterior walls that seem to enclose or embrace a central core like a pair of hands.

In contrast to the steel and glass that dominate the downtown landscape, this building, the home of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, has an organic exterior, a mosaic of wood-toned polygons that glow in various shades of tan and brown.

Inside that shell is a museum dedicated to telling the story of a multicolored world, a world in which conflict and resolution between shades of flesh has shaped history, and, ultimately, changed hearts.

If this dappled front seems an embodiment of the themes within, that’s no accident.

“It’s an expression of the variation in the people and the cultures that tells the story of civil and human rights, both here and abroad,” said architect Phil Freelon, of Durham, N.C.

After nine years of planning and a year of construction, the $75 million Civil Rights Center is almost ready. A soft opening will be held May 30, when invited guests will tour the interior as exhibit designers put the finishing touches on the center’s three galleries. The grand opening is June 23.

Freelon’s original design for a much larger structure featured two interlocking wings that were meant to suggest the linked arms of civil rights protesters. That was when the building was intended to be 100,000 square feet.

Then the crash of 2008 slowed donations to a creep, and Freelon redrew the building to accommodate a smaller budget. Most of the donations have come from corporations, individuals and foundations. The Wilbur and Hilda Glenn Family Foundation gave $5.5 million and the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation has given $2.5 million.

At 42,000 square feet, the gesture is still there, though in a more intimate frame.

Jill Savitt is curator of the center’s human rights exhibit, which takes up most of the top floor. The reduced design, she said, resembles “two cupped hands that are holding something both precious and fragile.”

That is an apt description for the papers of Martin Luther King Jr., a 50,000-piece collection that will be displayed in a windowless gallery on the center’s lowest level.

“They definitely need protecting,” said Savitt. Sensitive to moisture and sunlight, no single document can remain in the gallery for more than 90 days before it is rotated back into the collection

King’s personal papers were acquired in 2006 for $32 million by a consortium of donors led by then-mayor Shirley Franklin, and are owned by Morehouse College.

The middle floor of the center will be devoted to the American civil rights movement, curated by playwright and director George C. Wolfe, who won Tony awards for directing “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches” and “Bring in ‘da Noise/Bring in ‘da Funk.” So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a visit to the center will be a theatrical experience. The museum reflects a trend in the industry that moves away from focusing on collections and toward experiential venues that emphasize interaction over passive observation. Visitors will be able to experience the musical chaos that was part of walking down Auburn Avenue during its heyday, and with headphones and tactile feedback, they’ll get a sense of what it felt like to sit in at a segregated lunch counter.

The civil rights exhibit meshes on the upper level with the human rights exhibit, to make the point that the two concepts are congruent, and that civil rights activists of the 1960s have contemporary counterparts in countries around the world.

Freelon, whose firm recently merged with Atlanta-based Perkins and Will, is the designer of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., and the proposed Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson and is handling additions and renovations at the Auburn Avenue Research Library. The Civil Rights Center project is a collaboration between Freelon’s firm and architects HOK.

Though protected by those embracing hands, the building opens itself up at either end, looking out onto Pemberton Place and the plaza between the Georgia Aquarium and the Coke museum at one end and up toward Ivan Allen Boulevard at the other.

“It’s important to recognize that they are neighbors, so the building responds to that fact,” said Freelon.

The exhibits will be augmented by interactions with more than 100 docents, some of whom have had their own experiences in the civil rights movement to share, said spokesperson Judith Montier. “These people have personal, authentic stories to tell,” she said.

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