Thursday, September 11, 2014

Atlanta museums: month one

Through a combination of family visits and afternoons with the manlet, I've had a chance to visit six of Atlanta's museums so far this past month.  We have become members of the Georgia Aquarium and the Fernbank Museum of Natural History and have already visited both institutions more than once.  Since the High Museum of Art and the Atlanta History Center both honor AAM memberships and let kids under 2 in for free, we will probably not purchase additional memberships for those, and since both Fernbank and the High are remarkably kid-friendly places, we probably won't return frequently to Imagine It! the Atlanta Children's Museum.  I will likely return to the Center for Civil and Human Rights, mostly to view the changing exhibits derived from the Morehouse College MLK archive. In the remainder of this post, I offer quick reviews of the Georgia Aquarium,Fernbank and the High and a ,more in-depth review of the Center for Civil and Human Rights.
Leo and the author at the High Museum of Art. #MiCasaYourCasa

The Georgia Aquarium straddles a line between carnival-like tourist attraction and bastion of marine science.  When it comes to aquaria (and zoos) I tend to be a bit of a purist.  Animals are beautiful and fascinating.  They do not require embellishment. The Georgia Aquarium has an astonishing array of marine life exhibits. Some of its most exciting denizens include beluga whales, sea otters, and a large coral reef.  However, the aquarium seems to feel the need to up the ante with Disney Princess giveaways in the lobby and advertisements everywhere for "exclusive" events and tours sponsored by a dizzying array of corporations.  I find myself longing for a quiet space for contemplation.  To be fair, we've only visited so far on weekends, so the place has been packed.  And my one-year-old son has no problem gluing his eyes to the fish, pointing and grinning and vocalizing, whether from shoulder-top or backpack or baby k'tan.  So I'll give the place a break.

Leo loves Fernbank as well.  The natural history museum has a classic array of dioramas depicting Georgia's deep history, an enormous light-filled lobby containing a dramatic dinosaur display complete with pteranodons ready to take flight, a changing exhibit gallery, and an IMAX theater.  For Leo, the highlight is the NatureQuest gallery, a huge space for exploration of scientific themes and methods.  I anticipate many happy hours with Leo climbing up the tree house, rebuilding ancient walls, and discovering geological wonders in rocky enclaves.  The fun has just begun.

The High Museum of Art also offers a remarkably fun atmosphere for small children.  The courtyard lawn of the institution is dominated by a whimsical art installation, Mi Casa Your Casa featuring bright red metal "house frames" most of which have hammocks strung invitingly across from corner to corner.  Leo and I spent a good hour walking around from similar structure to similar structure and swinging on the hammock chairs.  The museum also boasts a fantastic family education center with a walk-through painting, foam sculpture building blocks, a magnetic wall populated by "found objects" and more traditional dress-up clothes and kid-scaled, touchable artwork.  However, the appeal of the High goes beyond its installations designed specifically for families.  The complex's architecture is bright, airy, and fun to explore, offering unique vistas and approaches from every angle.  It also features one of the best contemporary art galleries I've ever explored with meaningful  explanatory text and appropriate amounts of space to view artworks.  Leo and I felt welcomed by the guards in every gallery, and we found the staff to be friendly above and beyond the "call of duty."  We spoke at length with a woman who works for the museum's food service provider.  It was clear to me that she takes pride in her work and enjoys the collegial community at the museum.  I'm looking forward to many hours of exploration.

In contrast, I visited the Center for Civil and Human Rights with my father while Leo visited the aquarium with other members of the family. The Center boasts many excellent features and some significant drawbacks. One drawback that becomes clear upon entry into the institution, is that, although it embraces the term "center" for itself, it is really only an exhibition space.  When I think of a "center," I think of a space with a significant research collection, a place to learn and to visit again and again.  The Center has an air of completeness to it, a sense that its educational mission is a fait accompli with the only changing exhibition space being the dedicated gallery for items from the Morehouse MLK archive: personal papers and some disturbingly fetishized personal effects. The Center's gift shop is also disappointingly low on intellectual content.  I expected deep dives into the history of civil and human rights and instead was presented with tee-shirts, mugs, and generic pamphlets and figurines.

The Center's strength lies in the first part of its Civil Rights gallery and in aspects of its Human Rights gallery. The Civil Rights gallery opens extremely powerfully, making excellent use of audio and visual artifacts and exhibit design to convey emotional intensity. Oral history excerpts are also used to great effect and the exhibit text is written in an engaging and accessible manner without being "dumbed down." Although few physical artifacts are employed, the exhibits use constructed spaces and environments to convey authentic experiences.  One particularly moving installation recreated the feeling of being heckled and abused at a lunch-counter sit-in.  Another recreated the triumphant feeling of being part of the March on Washington and listening to Martin Luther King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech.  The emotional and intellectual tenor of the exhibit remains high up until Martin Luther King's death at which point it begins to rush headlong toward denouement.  The flow of the exhibit, which was masterfully paced previously halts abruptly, and details disappear from the exhibition's offerings.  Very little is said about Black Power and the many riots sparked across the country by MLK's death. A nod s made to "legacy" in the Requiem gallery of the exhibit, but, although the interactive tables there have a lot of potential, they include little substantive content as of yet. There is so much room here to include oral histories and diverse legacies of the movement!

I wonder whether the strange turn in the exhibition came from a sense that visitors will have likely run out of steam at the moment of MLK's death or whether there were budgetary problems or issues of narrative consensus?

Given the strange feeling I had at the end of the civil rights exhibit, I was thankful for the comfortable resting place offered on the second floor balcony of the building.  I was able to prepare myself emotionally for the Human Rights exhibit.  The opening of this exhibit which used mirrors to enable visitors to "interact" with narrators with a diverse array of personal experiences with human rights abuses, was the strongest part of the gallery. Further in, there were some unique offerings, including an installation devoted to China's "Great Firewall" which I appreciated.  There were also some digital installations which could use to have the kinks worked out of them and some overly didactic video areas.

Overall, I think that the Center for Civil and Human Rights has a great deal of potential, but it needs to let itself become a deeper archive for the legacy of these evolving movements both in the United States and around the World.