The Center for Civil and Human Rights tells the story and brings to life the American civil rights movement and introduces past and current human rights issues across the globe. The Morehouse College Martin Luther King Jr. Collection gallery exhibits King’s personal papers and writings. Together they form the basis for an ongoing dialogue on international human rights.
The Rockwell Group designed the center’s exhibition spaces in collaboration with director, writer and producer George C. Wolfe and human rights expert and activist Jill Savitt. Additional exhibit elements were designed for the public spaces and lobbies. The Freelon Group (Perkins + Will) and HOK were the project architects.
The center’s exhibition space focuses on telling stories in an experiential manner that engages visitors both individually and collectively. The exhibition space is comprised of two sets of galleries: the Civil Rights galleries and the Human Rights galleries. The Civil Rights galleries consist of a series of black-box rooms that tell the story of this period in American history in a linear manner. A dramatic mix of traditional and multimedia exhibits in a light- and sound-controlled environment offer a theatrical and immersive experience.
The Human Rights galleries are comprised of free-flowing, thematically organized exhibits, encouraging visitors to wander among the exhibits in an open-ended manner. A final shared gallery celebrates the accomplishments of these movements and serves as a place for visitors to linger, discuss their experiences and explore ways to get involved with various causes.
Exhibitions are presented primarily through graphics, immersive projections, individual interactive kiosks and group interactive stations. These distinct strategies serve to address the varying needs of visitors, as well as provide a wide range of experiences to engage them on different levels.
The Rockwell team was involved with the overall planning of the building and the total visitor experience, particularly the sequence of spaces, relationships between exhibits and public spaces, gallery sizes and adjacencies and throughput. The team also advised on possibilities for future expansion.
Rockwell’s goal was to connect visitors to the stories of the American civil rights movement and the global human rights movement, and they accomplished this by creating a series of immersive environments, media experiences, interactive activities and environmental graphics that visitors move through in an experiential manner.
A key challenge was making the civil rights era feel relevant and interesting for younger visitors who did not live through it, and also connecting it to the ongoing human rights movement. Rockwell’s exhibits were designed to foster personal connections between visitors and those featured in exhibits, as well as pulling out key themes and visuals as connective threads between the civil rights and human rights galleries. It was also important for the human rights galleries specifically to be dynamic and up-to-date. The center was always envisioned as a living, evolving place of action. The design team identified exhibits that would be updated and designed those areas to be flexible through changeable graphics or media. They also created a pre-function gallery just outside the event space for topical installations and local artists.
Since no artifacts were used in the civil rights or human rights galleries, Rockwell was challenged to explore new ways of telling stories in a museum setting. The team considered each story relative to the overall narrative and drew upon other disciplines, particularly theater, to choreograph the visitor experience in a meaningful, engaging way. Methods span from art installations to theatrical reconstructions to academic essays. Some exhibits are experienced in an energetic, communal setting; others are individual, more intimate moments.
The exhibits touch generations who experienced many of the events first-hand, as well as children who may be encountering this piece of history for the first time. Importantly, they encourage dialogue between the two cohorts. Many of the exhibits regularly elicit emotional responses, particularly the interactive lunch counter exhibit with binaural audio and the March on Washington and MLK Funeral media pieces.
"We laud this exhibition for the power of its communication in individual moments and interactions. Visitors who take a seat at a lunch counter and wear headphones to overhear conversations about the color of their skin will surely experience Civil Rights issues—up close and personal."
David Rockwell (principal in charge); Barry Richards (studio leader); Alin Tocmacov (project manager); Matt Grasso, Amanda Zaitchik (design team)
Freelon Group (Perkins + Will) (design architect); HOK (project architect); George C. Wolfe (chief creative officer); Jill Savitt (Human Rights exhibition coordinator); Batwin + Robin (media content); Second Story (interactive content); Platon (portraits); Rossin (The People’s Portfolio Hall of Fame Portraits); Paula Scher/Pentagram (Human Rights posters mural and Human Rights Defender); MGMT (graphics); FMS (lighting)