The Segregated Lunch Counter and Panorama of the Civil Rights Movement


Ralph Appelbaum Associates, Cortina Productions

Practice Area


Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture


Project Vision

The National Museum of African American History and Culture’s goal with the “Segregated Lunch Counter” interactive was to teach visitors about the methods and organizational approaches used by activists for protests during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The concept for the interactive and panorama film were initially designed by Ralph Appelbaum Associates and the Museum curatorial and design team as part of the exhibit design phase, but the interactive design and content was produced and deployed by Cortina Productions.

This dramatic interactive installation includes twelve 42-inch multi-touch screens embedded into a modern interpretation of a Woolworth’s lunch counter, that is set in front of a 35-foot projection screen. As part of the overall exhibit, in a display case next to this media experience, is an actual stool from the Greensboro Woolworth’s Sit-In of 1960.

The interactive counter enables visitors to explore critical actions taken during the Civil Rights Movement to affect national laws and influence future events. Broken down into a literal menu of twelve smaller movements, the interactive covers marches, sit-ins, freedom rides, bus boycotts, school desegregation, urban rebellions, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcom X, militancy, economic justice, gains and losses, and leadership.

To begin the interactive experience, visitors virtually step into the shoes of event organizers and participants by selecting one of the twelve movements to learn about the strategy and organization efforts for events like the Selma March, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the Woolworth’s Sit-In. To test visitors’ level of willpower, determination, and courage to make difficult choices, they are asked to think about how they would respond if faced with these situations. Once they make a choice, visitors can see statistically where their choice aligns with past users of the experience.

As visitors interact with the “Segregated Lunch Counter,” content is reflected back through the film projected above the exhibit. Iconic songs, footage, photographs, and words of the Civil Rights Movement are used to capture the vibrancy, challenges, risks, setbacks, and gains of these events. Most of the material is drawn from archival television news footage, illustrating the movement’s astute use of the mass media to generate support.

An additional feature that the Cortina team incorporated into the experience is a facilitator mode. Using facilitator mode, educators are able to control the Lunch Counter interactive remotely, to provide a guided experience aimed at classrooms and customizable for specific grade levels.

Since opening, the exhibit is extremely popular with museum visitors, with all twelve stations engaged constantly throughout the day.

Project Details
The power of a single event on a movement and the impact of this single media exhibit, The Segregated Lunch Counter, on the overall museum experience are analogous. This interactive media countertop allows today’s NMAAHC visitors to sit-in with the Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworth’s 1960 Sit-In. Photographs of the surrounding artifact displays and media installations confirm that the thoughtfulness of The Segregated Lunch Counter resonates throughout this museum.
Juror 1
A beautifully crafted and elegant space punctuated with powerful and heart-stopping moments.
Juror 2
Design Firm

Ralph Appelbaum Associates, Cortina Productions

Project Budget



Freelon (architect of record), Adjaye Associates (design architect), Davis Brody Bond (architecture design team), SH Acoustics (acoustic/audio design)


Design and Production, Inc.