Center for Civil and Human Rights honors the dissenters

CEO Doug Shipman talks construction, interactive countertops, and the Nobel Peace Prize conference

The area surrounding Centennial Olympic Park — the city’s tourism hub — will see some major changes in 2014. South of the Georgia Dome, construction workers are expected to break ground on the new Atlanta Falcons stadium. A few blocks away on Marietta Street, the College Football Hall of Fame is taking shape. And next door to the Georgia Aquarium, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights is rising from the ground.

In the coming months, Doug Shipman, the center’s CEO, will hire a 32-person full-time staff, oversee exhibition installations — including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s collection of personal papers — and ensure the 42,000-square-foot building stays on schedule to open this May. He shared a few details about the museum’s progress, its forthcoming exhibits, and how it plans to be more than just a tourist attraction.

The Center’s opening day is right around the corner. How are things coming along?

We’ve had a very busy summer and fall. We topped out the building in September and now have the walls going up. We should have the whole thing ready to start loading in the first exhibitions in January.

Aside from Morehouse College’s historic collection of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s papers, which will prominently be displayed, how’s the rest of the exhibition space shaping up inside the Center?

The three major galleries are the King Papers’ collection gallery, a series around civil rights’ history and legacy, and a series about human rights.

The civil and human rights spaces are more object- and story-driven. In the civil rights space, for example, we have a lunch counter where you can put on headphones which play audio that emulates the experience of a Civil Rights Movement sit-in protestor. You’d hear what folks are yelling at you. You can put your hands on the countertop and it’s a pulse monitor. You can then see, given what’s being yelled at you, whether you can keep your pulse down or if you’d be responding with stress. We did this to let folks feel what they felt.

The human rights gallery is going to be individual stories of human rights dissenters and offenders. We’ll have interactive components where you can explore different people. We’ll have rotating exhibitions about different human rights figures today. There will be a series of the greatest human rights folks from history. The second half is all about human rights issues. We’ll have interactive exhibitions around human rights and the Internet, human rights in America, and a series of non-brand-specific products that have human rights implications — soccer balls, chocolate production, and cell phones. We’ll have a series of interactive tables where you can go deeper on human rights issues and where individuals can take action. You can email yourself materials, research topics, and sign up for newsletters.

We also have a partnership with a photographer named Platon. He’s done a whole series around Burmese activists, Egyptian activists in Tahrir Square, and civil rights activists in Russia. We’re going to be the exhibition home for his human rights photography and launch with a series of his photographs from around the world.

What sort of partnerships has the center recently developed?

We have several relationships that have formalized over the last few months with several organizations — Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First, Amnesty International, Freedom House. They’re all partners and will provide content and create programs over time.

The center has recently tried to raise cash through a new fundraising effort. What’s involved?

It’s somewhat similar to the Georgia Aquarium’s FishScales program, but it’s a little bit different in its design. These are individual, three-dimensional tiles that have been put together on our lobby’s wall. For $250, individuals can purchase and put their names, family’s names, or kid’s names on the tiles. As you piece them together, the wall looks like it has a wave in it and isn’t a flat, stagnant wall. We hope to raise at least $500,000. Those funds go toward launching our programs and educational initiatives. A traditional membership program will launch in the spring. We hope to have several thousand members — typical for an institution our size.

The center and the College Football Hall of Fame are both slated to open Downtown in 2014. What kind of impact do you think it’ll have on the city?

There’s no question 2014 is going to be big. Both institutions are opening, plus the Atlanta Streetcar. To some extent, that’ll create bookends between the Center and the King District. ... You’re also going to see bigger-potential things happen. The Nobel Peace Prize Conference is coming to Atlanta in 2015. The center opening puts Atlanta back in the mix on human rights and peace issues. I think you’ll see more of those big events trying to connect back into this legacy. That only has a positive effect in the long term.

This interview has been edited and condensed.