Do we need a state history museum?

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

Last week, the AJC reported on a proposal by the governor to spend $17 million (in 2011 costs) to develop a state history museum in the old World of Coca-Cola building — to kick-start a new tourist zone near Capitol Hill in downtown Atlanta. A similar funding proposal failed twice before. Here are three views on the latest idea from experts in the field.

Commenting is open.

Better to help our existing museums

By Salvatore Cilella

Several months ago, aggrieved patrons and supporters of the Georgia State Archives were successful in overturning an ill-conceived effort by the secretary of state to virtually close the archives over “budgetary concerns.” Recently, Gov. Nathan Deal and a handful of legislators have been mulling over resurrecting the notion of a state history museum in the mausoleum known as the old “World of Coca-Cola” building near the perennially resuscitating Underground Atlanta.

The AJC reported Aug. 6 that the state may enjoy a $600 million budget surplus, and that $17 million might be used to renovate the old tourist site.

I served on a museum feasibility committee in 2008-09 just as the Great Recession was taking hold and, wisely, the idea was shelved. We are now in better times, and the world has changed. State leaders must understand the enormous changes that have occurred in the humanities and the arts, in history and museums in general. For their consideration, perhaps the 19th century idea of a state history museum is redundant, obsolete and costly.

Yes, we hear that Georgia is one of a few states without a state history museum. So what? We have durable historical organizations throughout the state that reach beyond the city of Atlanta where a state museum, if it follows the patterns of other recently opened state museums, will become a “local” Atlanta museum and never reach the entire state as its proponents claim.

Instead of sinking capital into an expensive renovated facility requiring ongoing operational support, the state should take that $17 million and distribute it to first-rate regional museums and organizations — Georgia has approximately 280 recognized museums — already in existence.

This would give many a level of fiscal sustainability — institutions such as the Georgia Historical Society, founded by the General Assembly in 1839 and the oldest continuously operated historical society in the South; Georgia State Archives; Atlanta History Center, founded in 1926; Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, founded in 1973; and Georgia Humanities Council, founded in 1971. All have suffered through the recent economic downturn. State support would provide stability, giving visitors and residents throughout the state a “buy-in” to their history.

And what about all those historical objects and curiosities in the state Capitol? Farm them out as gifts or long-term loans to the established organizations mentioned above. Keep a few and open not a grandiose state historical museum, but take a cue from Congress and build a visitors center on the state house grounds with a few of the most historically significant objects.

And how do you link all the wonderful “statewide assets” not in Atlanta? With a state website for all historical organizations across Georgia. Collections could be shared virtually and, with unlimited access to schools, this would be a better expenditure of funds on an annual basis than building and maintaining a brand-new organization to feed at the private and public philanthropic trough.

Salvatore Cilella, former president and CEO of the Atlanta History Center, recently retired after a 42-year career in the museum field.

Logical location deserves discussion

By A.J. Robinson

It’s good news to hear that the state is reconsidering the concept for a Georgia history museum. Whether or not it is an actual museum and/or occupies the old World of Coca-Cola site, the time is right to explore the notion of a state-of-the-art facility that would celebrate Georgia’s past, present and, most importantly, future.

Who can argue that we entered a new era for our city and state with the opening of the Georgia Aquarium in 2005? (Thank you, Bernie Marcus.) B.A., or “Before the Aquarium,” as I like to say, we had a varied collection of veteran facilities sprinkled throughout the metro area — Stone Mountain, Six Flags, our wonderful Zoo Atlanta and even the Cyclorama, to name a few — but they were vastly spread out from one another, creating very little synergy among our visitor and tourist base.

That all changed as millions of visitors and residents began to flock to the Centennial Park area to patronize the Aquarium, the new World of Coca Cola, the Children’s Museum and CNN Center, all within walking distance of one another. And with the wave of next year’s new openings in the same area — the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, College Football Hall of Fame Atlanta and the Atlanta Streetcar — it’s clear we’ve come a long way since our 2006 attempt to secure the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

We’ve learned a great deal about the attraction business since then. Most importantly, we know that traditional museums are a dying breed among the modern-day menu of consumer choices. There seems to be a greater demand for innovative and interactive cultural and entertainment centers. As the state history museum discussions continue, it is important to note that there are not many old-style museums being constructed today without very extensive feasibility studies and community input.

The new facility could celebrate all that is great about Georgia. It could serve as a historical exhibit, state welcome center and a source of pride for all Georgians. Grounded by our state’s natural and cultural heritage, this multi-faceted facility could be many things: a beacon of commitment to progress and future growth, an economic development tool, and a gateway to the rich offerings that exist throughout the state.

In other words, this does not just have to be a history lesson.

So once the decision is made for what it should be, careful consideration should be given for where it should be. A possible location at the old World of Coca-Cola site should factor in the unique hospitality asset of the historic Georgia Railroad Freight Depot, the connection to the Georgia State University campus, and the proximity to the Capitol grounds. It seems to be one of the most logical site choices. But there are still many factors to consider.

Let’s keep this discussion going to create an iconic celebration of all that is great about Georgia.

A.J. Robinson is president of Central Atlanta Progress and the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District.

Telling why Georgia matters

By Jamil Zainaldin

The idea of a Georgia History Museum has existed since the mid-1990s. It is in the news again.

Why history? Cicero said it best 2,000 years ago: “To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child.”

Why a state museum? It symbolizes place, tells our stories, and ties the “threads” of a jumbled past into something that “speaks” to us — that enlightens. We all need to know about the significance of the “Albany Movement” in civil rights history, and the discoverer of anesthesia, Dr. Crawford Long. Did you know that the 1864 Atlanta Campaign probably changed the Civil War’s outcome? And do we appreciate that our own Thomas A. Dorsey of Villa Rica was one of the inventors of modern gospel music? Museums are an inspiration for the present. They are also a bridge between the past and the future.

Why now? About 44 percent of all Georgians were born elsewhere, according to the 2010 Census. Where can a tourist or someone new to the state glimpse an accurate picture of Georgia, other than on the web? While the economy remains challenging, most Americans like their museums, with 2011 showing an uptick in attendance over the previous year, the American Association of Museums reports. The challenge in Georgia is how to develop something new without adding to the already intense competition for scarce resources.

Part of the new is digital technology. Properly defined and developed, a “connected” state history museum can reach into our schools and around the world and effectively reach all citizens of Georgia. It can serve as an interactive hub for the institutions that safeguard our civic values and promote dialogue among citizens of all ages.

When organizations and educators are invited to work together in imagining a statewide museum, interesting things could happen. I will use my own organization as one example. The Georgia Humanities Council and its partners have just launched a redesigned online encyclopedia of the state, www.georgiaencyclopedia.org. One of our partners is the Digital Library of Georgia. By working “connectively,” there is an opportunity for a state museum to integrate already existing digital resources into its programming and also to have a digital presence in the schools.

A proper planning process is essential for a top-flight 21st century product. And to ensure that it remains always available to visitors and up to date, it will need a sustainability plan before it opens to the public. Let’s start with the old World of Coca-Cola building, in the shadow of the state Capitol where throngs of schoolchildren visit every year. A celebration of a Georgia product gone global, the Coke building could transform into a place where Georgia’s newest citizens and future leaders learn the full extent of why Georgia matters — perhaps ensuring that our state matters even more in the decades ahead.

Jamil Zainaldin is president of the Georgia Humanities Council.

14 comments Add your comment

Starik

August 17th, 2013
7:29 pm

I suspect that the version of history in a State-run museum would resemble the mandatory class in the school system – it would sanitize or ignore little embarrassments like the Two Governors period. Gene Talmadge, Lester & the Pickrick, Leo Frank, lynch mobs, the refounding of the Klan at Stone Mountain etc. Georgia history has a ugly, but entertaining side that would make for a good tourist attraction.

historywriter

August 17th, 2013
10:50 am

@Jack—Sorry you’re so fearful in our city. If available monies in a city are prioritized for the best infrastructure and education for everyone, there will be less need for prisons.

Shamehia

August 17th, 2013
9:17 am

Here’s a radical idea: instead of casting about for a way to dispose of $17 million in surplus money return it to the taxpayers in the form of a $17 million state income tax reduction.

Road Scholar

August 17th, 2013
5:43 am

I support the idea, but not at Underground! It’s a waste land!

Put it near those facilities at the Aquarium. It would be an asset to the state and to Atlanta , esp when school children have class trips to view Georgia’s history…something they do not know much about. As for the naysyers above, I guess they are so smart and busy to not learn and better themselves . They can just keep making the same mistakes others have made…over and over…