The most difficult decision to make about creating a history center for the city of Chattanooga is where to start.
Do you begin 12,000 years ago? Start with the Civil War? What about the civil rights era? Or do you tell the story of revitalization and rebirth that started just 20 years ago?
In addition, how do you make this center different, more engaging and less fleeting than a typical history museum?
As executive director of the project, these were the questions that kept Daryl Black and crew up at night.
According to Black, the design elements are now complete, and the museum is transitioning into an operational phase ahead of an early 2014 grand opening.
The new Chattanooga History Center will be located directly in the middle of the majority of the city’s aquarium plaza traffic. It will feature galleries of seven landmark events in Chattanooga’s history and evocative "memory" pieces designed to relive history through experiential stories.
"We’ve spent three years just imagining this thing," Black said. "Now, it’s time to drive nails, put screws in wood and lay graphics on panels. It’s both nerve-racking and exciting because we’ve got one crack at this."
Unum announced this week a donation of $350,000 to the project, which brings their total donation to $500,000. The company will become the official sponsor of the educational programs at the museum and the presenting sponsor of the center’s orientation theater, which features a 10-minute documentary narrated by Samuel L. Jackson.
The center's capital campaign has now surpassed $9.4 million.
Black said Unum’s involvement is huge.
"This is a great partnership," Black said. "Unum’s support of education in the community has been exemplary in the past, and we’re thrilled to be a part of what they see as a strong educational institution for the city."
The overwhelming financial support from the campaign allowed Black to "go big" with the project.
They hired Ralph Appelbaum Associates—the largest museum exhibition design firm in the world—to work on the project. The firm, most notably, designed exhibits for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which has been described as a "turning point in museology."
"The design that has come to this project sets a standard for design," Black said. "I think it really communicates the contemporary nature of thinking about the past."
Early on, the team of developers decided the best entry point to the story of Chattanooga would be just after the American Revolution.
"As a scholar, I could spend three or four careers on Chattanooga’s history," Black said. "For practical reasons, we just don’t have the floor space to do 12,000 years of history. That’s a project for archaeologists, ancient historians and Native American scholars."
But what they can do in a limited space is find new ways to tell stories, ask questions and engage visitors.
"We have to take history from being this abstract thing that ivory-towered scholars do to something that communities and people do every single day," Black said. "We started talking about how you could weave memory into an exhibit like this."
The centerpieces will be three memory exhibits down the center of the main gallery, one of which will feature voices of segregation as told by those who were present.
Another will begin after the Civil War and discuss the concept of living versus transmitted memory of the time and the emerging counterpoints between white memory and black memory up to 1895.
"It’s very discernibly 'history,' ... but you’re also dealing with memory, which is not the stuff of 'history' in most people’s minds," he said.
The center will feature an hour and 50 minutes of multimedia. Black said a visitor could spend at least three hours in the center to go through all of the information.
The walkthrough will include large pieces on Chattanooga after the American Revolution and the contest of sovereignty between the Cherokee and United States.
"What we wanted to do is to introduce the visitors to that perspective, to think about who the Cherokee people are today," Black said. "The first thing they’ll tell you is that the 'Trail of Tears' is only part of [their] story."
Other exhibits include the formation of Chattanooga as a town from 1838 to 1863 and the issue of "urban slavery," of which Chattanooga was an integral part. In addition, this gallery will focus on the construction of railroads, manufacturing and the existence of at least one slave market in the city.
This leads, of course, to an exhibit on the Civil War, particularly the battle of Missionary Ridge, which often takes a backseat to the battles of Chattanooga and Chickamauga.
The next exhibit features the results of the campaign and the influx of freed slaves from Southern states like Alabama and Georgia into the city. Black said Chattanooga became a majority black town, with an estimated 7,500 blacks entering the city post-Civil War.
This leads to the industrial revolution of Chattanooga, which laid the foundation for what Chattanooga would become. The Coca-Cola bottling story, which Black said is "beautifully rendered" by Appelbaum, will be a main focus.
Segregation is told through the people who lived through the painful experience.
"It’s painful to listen to the stories," Black said. "To think that within living memory that sort of legal exclusion existed here ... that’s what great storytelling does. It affects you in this kind of visceral way."
Near the end of the gallery, visitors will be introduced to a multimedia piece explaining the three "crisis points" that shaped Chattanooga: urban renewal, segregation/desegregation and air/water pollution.
"We make the links between all three," Black said. "It’s one of the most dramatic and most compelling pieces of multimedia that I’ve seen on American history."
The final piece is a larger video production that asks the question, "What next?"
"The whole point is [that] now you’ve seen these stories and people who have made the decisions," Black said. "Now, it’s your job to make the future."
Black said that he’s happy with the design and that he thinks the Chattanooga History Center will set a standard as the new way to deliver history.
"It’s a complicated story that’s being presented in a very sophisticated way," he said. "It’s not just a recitation of dates and facts ... There is no shortage of stories in Chattanooga that have national appeal. It is a remarkable place as far as turning points in American history."
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