If you could choose one object to represent a favorite memory or iconic experience from your life in Atlanta, what would you choose? A childhood memory of riding Priscilla the Pink Pig at Rich’s department store or visiting Willie B. at the zoo? Perhaps it would be witnessing Hank Aaron hit his 600th career home run. Or maybe it would be a defining moment in civil rights history like Dr. Martin Luther King’s acceptance speech for the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize.
Atlanta in 50 Objects, an exhibition at the Atlanta History Center which will debut January 16 and run through July 10, marks a distinct departure from the museum’s previous shows: It was curated by Atlanta itself.
Overseeing the project were Don Rooney, director of exhibitions, and guest curator Amy Wilson. Rooney’s organizational efforts with Wilson’s eye and creativity managed citizens’ suggestions which were solicited through social media, radio, newspaper ads and on-site suggestion boxes. The exhibit’s final selections are representative of the top 50 finalists. As expected, it is an eclectic but evocative reflection of a city in transition that reflects on its past (a figurine from the original diorama at the Cyclorama) while contemplating the present (Michonne’s sword from The Walking Dead television series).
Certain objects distinguished themselves as front-runners from the outset, such as Ramblin’ Wreck. Acquiring the automobile wasn’t quite as simple as some may assume — there’s more than one Ramblin’ Wreck. “The history of Ramblin’ Wreck at Georgia Tech,” Rooney notes, “dates back 60 years or so now. There are three official Ramblin’ Wrecks. One doesn’t have an engine in it and it goes to events. One is driven out onto the field at football games and the one we have has most recently been living at the Georgia Tech Hotel & Conference Center.”
The exhibition certainly has its fair share of more cumbersome acquisitions. Ramblin’ Wreck had to be transported from Technology Square to the AHC’s gallery space, and reconstructing the Pink Pig monorail ride from Rich’s presented its own challenges for the AHC’s staff. But one of the largest challenges proved to be summing up more esoteric or downright impossible suggestions into something tangible: What would be the best way to represent the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport? Or just the general suggestion of “trees”?
“We first talked about how we could get a tree in here — that was a conundrum,” Wilson states. Many didn’t cite neighborhoods — let alone specific or historic trees — in their suggestions. “We talked to Atlanta Drone about a video drone flying over the city. We talked to Trees Atlanta. We talked to arborists. As we started to sketch the floor plan in, we finally decided to create a semicircular mural that somewhat surrounds the visitor,” Rooney says. The mural serves as the backdrop to a model of the Atlanta skyline by architect John Portman. “So the view is actually of the Buckhead skyline taken from Casey’s Hill at the west edge of the city. And the predominant space in that 5-by-10-foot wall mural is trees in the foreground of the skyline. There’s also a garden bench that will be over in that corner of the exhibit for folks to sit down and luxuriate in a city of trees.”
For many residents, some of the city’s most defining moments occurred during the civil rights era and the exhibition offers up both the tribulations and triumphs of the movement: a ‘Colored Entrance’ sign is displayed alongside an autographed axe handle from Lester Maddox’s Pickrick Restaurant, which is then juxtaposed by Dr. King’s 20-page acceptance speech for his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize — handwritten on yellow legal paper. The Sweet Auburn Historic District is also represented by a United Press International teletype machine from The Atlanta Daily World, the city’s oldest African-American newspaper, which was founded in 1928 and served as the media pipeline to the business, cultural, social and sacred communities of Sweet Auburn.
While some objects share historical or cultural connections, the exhibition is not arranged in a chronological or thematic order. “We didn’t purposefully create zones or themes,” Rooney points out. “We sometimes created views where one thing might flow easily to another. But the central idea is that the 50 things are exclusively Atlanta — so why section them? It all fits together into the mosaic of the city. I think any path you take through this gallery will allow you to weave together your own story.”
All of the displayed items will be accompanied by text, audio and photographs that help place the object in the proper context. A vintage microphone, for example, from WSB is paired with a photo showing silent screen legend Rudolph Valentino during a 1923 broadcast from Atlanta. (Allegedly, it was the first time he was heard over the radio.) And there is definitely a sense of fun at play in some of the installations, such as a Varsity car hop tray displaying two chili dogs, an order of onion rings and a Frosted Orange.
“Some of these things are humorous when you look back,” Rooney states. “Others are very heartfelt and serious. You look at the photograph of the students at Atlanta’s Union Station risking their lives and their futures to push back against the Jim Crow laws and I think you will be emotionally affected by some of the objects and some of the images.”
Atlanta in 50 Objects is certain to resonate with anyone who considers themselves an Atlantan, whether they were born here or not, and for relative newcomers the exhibition is an entertaining crash course in the local history and culture. More importantly, it reflects a refreshingly different aesthetic in curation. “It’s a trend in museums to give the public a voice and to include them in the conversation,” Rooney adds. “And to really let them drive the curatorial vote as much from their perspective as from any so-called expert from a museum. This is an important exhibit for us and the Atlanta community.”