AAHC Forum: Rebuilding the Museum, One Person at a Time

This post is a part of the AAHC Forum. In the coming months we will invite current and past grantees to contribute their project experiences via blog posts on our UpNext Blog and then ask you to respond through the AAHC Virtual Forum. We hope you will add your voice and share your needs and opinions so that AAHC can continue to help African American museums thrive. Please visit the AAHC forum to continue the conversation.

By Tracy Lauritzen Wright
Director of Administration and Special Projects, National Civil Rights Museum

The National Civil Rights Museum has just started construction on a $27.5 million renovation of our main building, the historic Lorraine Motel. Part of a comprehensive $40 million campaign, the project really is building a new museum with the renovation of every square foot of space within the original museum building. This is our first renovation since we opened in 1991. The project includes a total renovation of the permanent exhibitions in the Lorraine building, acquisition, and renovation of a new administration building and an endowment campaign. As the first museum to interpret the modern civil rights movement in permanent exhibit format, we were founded at the site of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination and have transformed a site of tragedy into an educational triumph.

Visitors tour the National Civil Rights Museum

Lia Pulliam, 2, and her father Donnie Pulliam, 30, from Houston MS tour the National Civil Rights Muesum in Memphis, TN. Photo by Lisa Waddell Buser.

We have an incredible legacy to preserve. As we prepared for this renovation project, we knew we needed to prepare our staff for the new challenges our renovation process would present, as well as for a new era of operations once we reopen the Lorraine building. We needed to ensure that all our staff members felt fully empowered to meet our challenges with knowledge, creativity, and confidence. And we thought we needed a boost to get to that place.

We received an IMLS Museum Grant for African American History and Culture in 2009 that included support for professional development for all staff. For most of our staff, this is their first position in a museum, so the grant gave us an opportunity to send more staff to industry conferences, something that we would previously end up reducing or sacrificing when compiling the annual budget. For a few individuals, those experiences led them to a professional commitment to the museum field and to seek out other opportunities to advance their skills and museum careers. The grant support also encouraged our administrative staff to more aggressively pursue opportunities to present at industry conferences, which has strengthened our professional networks. We also were able to conduct a number of development sessions for the entire staff to review our new interpretive plan, educate all staff about museums’ civic engagement responsibilities, and provide comprehensive visitor service training.

Balcony of Room 306 at the historic Lorraine Motel, assassination site of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Balcony of Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel

In 2012, we were awarded a second grant through this program to continue our professional development endeavors; to educate our entire staff on the new exhibitions; and to develop and train our staff in new, higher standards of visitor service. When we reopen the Lorraine in early 2014, we want our service, exhibits, and programs to be world class from day one. That is what we are working toward today.

Our renovation project has given us the opportunity to take a fresh look at our interpretation and operations, and the support from IMLS is giving us the tools to prepare and provide an incredible experience for our visitors, now and for the next generation.

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