On display January 16 to December 31, 2016
What makes Atlanta “Atlanta?” That quality can be elusive, especially for newcomers and visitors to Georgia’s capital. But the compelling city comes into sharp focus in the new Atlanta History Center exhibition Atlanta in 50 Objects.
The exhibition is filled with prized Atlanta-rooted treasures – from Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech manuscript to Georgia Tech’s Ramblin’ Wreck and a 1915 Coca-Cola bottle mold to a touchable plaster cast of Willie B’s handprints – as well as plenty of surprises.
When Atlanta History Center exhibition organizers first considered assembling a collection of 50 city-defining pieces, they quickly decided that the best experts were Atlantans themselves, residents who cheer the Braves and rue I-285 rush-hour traffic, who understand how Civil War losses and civil rights victories together helped forge the city’s unique identity.
Starting in November 2014, the History Center solicited general ideas from the public through Facebook and other online platforms as well as a suggestion box on site. Atlanta in 50 Objects was shaped from the roughly 300 suggestions that poured in over three-plus months, with History Center interpreters selecting items that best represented the themes that individuals suggested.
The broad ideas contributed by the public reflected not only the city’s earliest history (with suggestions that the railroad and Civil War be represented), but also Atlanta’s changing landscape (immigration, the hip-hop music scene, the LGBTQ community and the rise of the TV production and film industry). Dynamic leaders across generations also were strong among suggestions, including Mayors Ivan Allen Jr., Maynard Jackson and Andrew Young and Coca-Cola Co. president and philanthropist Robert W. Woodruff.
Whether the suggestions were slam-dunks or unexpected, History Center exhibition organizers were uniformly pleased with the public’s heightened participation.
While Atlanta in 50 Objects includes a strong representation of the big businesses that have helped power the metro area’s growth, the exhibition does not present the city through rose-colored glasses. For instance, among the objects are two that represent barricades to the civil rights movement: a “Colored Entrance” sign and an autographed axe handle from Lester Maddox’s Pickrick restaurant, intended to turn back African Americans early in the integration era.
The objects range from items as small as a scraper tool from the Native American archeological site Standing Peachtree, broadcaster Skip Caray’s Atlanta Braves World Series ring and a Southern Christian Leadership Conference donation envelope with Martin Luther King Jr.’s likeness to objects as large as the Ramblin’ Wreck, an 11-foot-long Chick-fil-A billboard cow and an elaborate model of architect-developer John Portman’s downtown skyscrapers.
Each of the 50 items are displayed along with interpretive text that backgrounds its importance to the city, as well as photographs, maps or other graphics.