By Meredith Pruden
A more apropos day for the unveiling of the Atlanta History Center’s newest exhibition could not have been selected. “I Have a Dream: The Morehouse College Martin Luther King, Jr. Collection” premiered January 15, the anniversary of King’s birth, for its 17-week run in the Center’s brand new 6,000 square foot exhibition space. The occasion marks both the first ever appearance of the collection and also the opening of the space in which the collection is housed through May 13.
The recent exhibits exemplify the expansion and renovation efforts of the Center, which have been ongoing for nearly seven years. In addition to the 20,000 square foot $10.7 million facility in which the “I Have a Dream” and Centennial Olympic Games exhibits are housed, the Center has been hard at work on many other projects as well. Restorations of its historic homes are complete including the Swan House, the Tullie Smith Farm and the Margaret Mitchell House in midtown. The Center also has technologically upgraded the Kenan Research Center, which is the southeast’s major archival repository center, according to Rose, and plans just have been approved for a new site development plan as well.
“Atlanta’s reputation as a destination city has improved,” said AHC Vice President of Marketing Communications Hillary Hardwick. “The timing for the History Center couldn’t be better. It’s perfectly aligning us with the rest of Atlanta.”The 600-document collection of King’s personal library and papers, many in his own handwriting, dates back to his young theological seminary days, according to Jim Bruns, Atlanta Historical Society president. Purchased for $32 million at auction by the City of Atlanta on behalf of King’s alma mater Morehouse College, the exhibit is the largest singularly displayed collection in the world.
“I think this is the largest presentation of King-related documents you will ever see,” Brun said. “Documents are somewhat fragile. They can’t stand light exposure and prolonged display, so a collection of this magnitude is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Highlights of the exhibit, which Brun called the first of the Center’s blockbusters, include King’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and multiple drafts of his “I Have a Dream” speech. However, the exhibit is important even excepting King’s more famous works, according to AHC campus director and exhibit curator Michael Rose.
“This is the very beginning of what King was doing,” Rose said of the collection. “When he became a civil rights leader, he didn’t have time to write new speeches, so he would go back to those early sermons. Those books he used in college were very influential to his work in the civil rights movement. That’s why this collection is so important. It’s the basis of everything else in his life.”
The “I Have a Dream” exhibit is only the first in a series of blockbuster exhibitions to occupy the new temporary exhibit space, which will be reconfigured and customized to fit each project housed within its walls. A collection of Benjamin Franklin’s personal artifacts, including his original printing press, odometer, bifocals, lightening rod and Franklin’s copy of the Declaration of Independence is scheduled to arrive July 4 in celebration of the 300th anniversary of his birth.
“We are the only place in the southeast that will get this exhibit,” Brun said. “Our ultimate hope is that Atlantans and visitors to our city will always get a ‘two-fer’ because the High — Museum — will focus on major blockbuster exhibits in the arts and we will focus on major exhibitions on history. That’s our vision.”