One of the National Civil Rights Museum’s central problems is its problem of place. The museum is housed in the Lorraine Motel which, in April of 1968, became the site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. In the intervening years King’s image and memory grew into something of a monolith. King became synonymous with the movement, and in many ways he came to embody the movement in a single memory conception. King was seen as the axis around which the movement revolved—he was the pillar of southern resistance and totem of global civil rights. His was an image around which both black and white Americans could rally and reflect idealistically on how far America had come through the Civil Rights Movement, on the fulfillment of the dream. As a result of King’s image and the importance ascribed to him, his place of death manifests many effects of a pilgrimage site. People travel to the place that he was killed because they feel as though it is sacred, set apart from normal time and space by the spiritual importance it maintains in America’s civic religion. Through its history and memory associations the Lorraine Motel occupies a very particular place in people minds, and one that is the source of powerful emotional associations. It has a very specific meaning and that lies in the spiritual and sacred power inherent in the site of a saint’s martyrdom. Interpreting the site or anything housed within the site otherwise thus becomes secondary to fully comprehending and experiencing the site’s specific sacrality.
While the historicity of the museum’s site might serve to augment the museum’s function in some people’s minds, the reality is it precludes a complete and thorough understanding of the movement in all of its various forms. The fundamental problem for the museum is that being housed in the site of King’s death undermines the museum’s stance of objectivity and distorts the museum’s claim of being a “National” Civil Rights Museum. Because of the site’s historical nature and the emotions roused by one’s being in such a site, it is simply impossible to divorce the museum and its exhibits from the image and influence of King, a fact that renders the Museum’s interpretation of the movement, its participants, its goals and aspirations, and its places woefully incomplete.
Ideally, a history museum should be objective, emotionally detached from the history it conveys. A museum should also be even-handed—it should take into account all sides of the history, excluding nothing and including everything historically relevant to the time. It should house historically relevant artifacts that help the museum-going audience conceptualize the period in a historically meaningful way. It should facilitate a feeling of understanding, but not of spiritual fulfillment. On all of these accounts the National Civil Rights Museum fails to qualify as an ideal museum. This is not the problem, of course, as no museum can ever reach these idealistic criteria. The true criterion for a museum, however, is ascribing to the museum’s ideal and striving towards its fulfillment, and the problem with the National Civil Rights Museum is that it makes no attempt at this, rendering it difficult to truly identify it as a museum in the proper sense of the word. The reason for this, ultimately, is that the museum does not value even-handedness and historical detachment. Rather, it cherishes its proximity to King and is happy to disregard the distortions that arise as a result. The museum’s collections manager, Marian Carpenter, even suggested that the museum’s educational properties are augmented by the spiritual presence of King through his place of death. Fostering this connection brings in more guests and creates for the museum and its audience the illusion of education, in reality the fulfillment of what people expect to see and feel when they visit the site of King’s death. Sadly, even if the museum were to endeavor to distance its historical interpretation from the life and work of King, it would be utterly unable to sever the indissoluble tie of place as King’s memory will loom forever over whatever comes to occupy the space, dominating, distorting, and transforming its meaning through his.