The International Civil Rights Center and Museum opened in Greensboro nearly three and a half years ago. A national sit-in movement began on February 1st, 1960 at an F.W. Woolworth lunch counter on Elm Street, and today that site remains a commemoration and celebration of a chapter in American history.
By some metrics the museum has struggled to gain visitors and grow its footprint since it opened. Now, leaders of the museum are planning an optimistic initiative and one significant change.
Since the grand opening in 2010 there has been only one way to tour the exhibits at the museum - with a guide. The museum doesn’t allow photography or recordings in the exhibit space, but made an exception one afternoon last week. The hour-long tour chronicles much of the Civil Rights Movement as well as some temporary displays. Lolita Watkins is a tour guide.
"Behind me you will see a huge American flag and it represents freedom, equality and justice," she says. "Which are still big ideas we’re working on in this country today."
Perhaps the biggest criticism by museum-goers has been that a guide is required. Leaders have long said this is to maximize the experience and they haven’t wavered on the policy, until now.
"I like to be able to wonder and read and just reminisce myself when I go to museums," says Melvin “Skip” Alston, a co-founder of the museum who remains on the board of directors. He said in an interview last week the museum will soon begin allowing visitors to do self-guided tours.
"There are a lot of people that like to take their time and not to be rushed through an exhibit. And we recognize that," he said.
Alston didn’t have a specific date, but he said self-guided tours would be available by the end of the year.
The museum is a beautiful facility with a collection of powerful images, videos and artifacts. There is an auditorium, classroom space and that iconic lunch counter. But, the museum has run a budget deficit each year; it’s reduced full-time staff from 14 to five; and it hasn’t been able to increase the number of visitors since that first year.
More than a half dozen former museum board members and major donors were contacted for this story. Only one would speak at length and asked to remain anonymous because of their position on other boards in the community. That person said there is a lack of enthusiasm in Greensboro for the museum and a need for more temporary exhibitions to lure visitors back. Leaders could look to similar venues in the Southeast for ideas.
"So one of the things we’ve been able to do is create some signature types of activities," says Beverly Robertson. She's President of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis located at the Lorraine hotel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. She says signature events include an annual Freedom Award ceremony that attracts 4,000 guests and a partnership with the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies that includes a basketball game on MLK Day.
The museum has about 220,000 visitors annually, more than three times what Greensboro draws. It hasn’t run a deficit in 16 years and has a staff of 28 people. It’s in the midst of a $40 million capital campaign. Robertson says one reason for the success is her board.
"It is an extremely diverse board both from race, culture, background, religious affiliations – one of the major rabbis in town is on my board," she says. "And the board is very much involved in looking at our financials, challenging us every time we turn around and making sure they understand what’s going on."
Robertson points out the museum in Memphis had challenges early on as well. By adding CEOs, religious leaders and former elected officials to her board she said it gave the museum a greater network and better access to capital. In Greensboro the board for the Civil Rights museum is much smaller than the one in Memphis. Alston says there is room for improvement and that leaders in Greensboro are looking to grow that group as they work on expanding other initiatives.
"We are really concentrating now on the ‘Center’ part of the museum, which is our educational component," Alston says.
The current plan is to develop classes at the museum for students from 17 counties. It’s an ambitious effort that would start in September and according to Alston could double the number of visitors by this time next year. It would cost about $1.3 million, $100,000 or so of which has already been raised. Alston says the next step in fund-raising efforts is to again go to the city, which doesn’t regularly help finance the museum. He wants the City Council to vote on an allocation by the end of the summer.