Sometimes when you set out to explore a new city, you end up with a fun surprise. Other times, it doesn’t end up where you expected, at all.
Our stop in Atlanta was an extended layover, on our way to an island paradise with world class scuba and free diving opportunities to see real underwater wildlife in the wild, so we skipped the Georgia aquarium, however worthwhile it may be. Instead, we opted for two other sites: 1) the National Center for Civil and Human Rights which came highly recommended by friends and family, and, 2) the “World of Coca-Cola,” not recommended but an iconic landmark of the city.
The latter had not been recommended and then I committed mistake #1: I did not bother to research anything about it ahead of time. I just figured that it would be something like a factory attraction of some kind, paired with locally relevant historical bits of information. After all, this is Atlanta and Coke is from Atlanta…right? Probably there would be something about cool international fonts and alphabets for the Coca Cola logo. We expected an experience that was groovy and fun and strange and interesting.
It was not.
As my kids say, “worst for the first,” so let’s start off with the story of our visit to the World of Coca Cola, aka “How To Brainwash American Consumers Openly and Without Irony, While Getting Them to Foot the Bill for It.”
Without overstating it, this place is now way up at the top on our list of worst museums we have ever visited. Very tippy top. It is a large, well-staffed building with costly exhibits that someone–teams of people, presumably–worked long hours to conceive and then craft. And it is simply a complete and total waste of time, resources, and brain power for everyone involved. The “tour” is nothing but one long advertisement for Coca-Cola, and not even a good one. We walked away with a stronger resolve to avoid Coke products, rather than to consume more. Exactly the opposite result than the one the Company intended, I’m sure.
In the intro portion of the tour, the guide spoke about a collection of Coke paraphernalia in display cases and hanging on the walls, followed by a six-minute commercial on a big screen that serves no purpose. Well, besides as a method of controlled indoctrination through emotional manipulation. They hit every cliché in the book during those six minutes. (Wedding proposal in a hot air balloon: Check. Returning soldier who surprises his family: Check. Baby Announcement: Check. And so on…)
Even more unbelievably, they shamelessly court patrons to invest even more of themselves during their visit. There are “sign-up stations” and surveys at various points of the tour where it is possible to voluntarily share personal contact information in order to…what, exactly? Get more products or perks? Nope: it is simply so that you can receive more emails and text messages from the Coca Cola Company.
Or you can tell your “Coke Story,” print it out and hang it on their display wall so other visitors can be inspired to love Coke even more. (It is hard to understand the purpose of this room, besides to feed the Coca Cola Company’s already gigantic wallet.)
At least we got to see a very cool robot moving bottles around, and taste some strange and unusually flavored soft drinks from around the world. This is more the kind of thing I expected from the visit. Still not worth $16.
Now this was a clever idea: there were courtesy phone charger stations along the way. These were marketed as free, and I watched a patron swipe her credit card, for identification purposes only, in order to keep safe the phone in its charging “pod” so that only she could reclaim it, at the end of the tour.
See what they did there? They offered a valued service, so that visitors would have warm and fuzzy associations with the Coke Company. Free of charge! (Well, besides the matter of the whole $16 admission thing…)
One would think that, given the nearly universal appeal of Coca Cola products on our planet, this monument to the marketing greatness of the Company would at least offer some inspiration for students of business, but besides the phone charger station, there was nothing else about which to jot down any notes. The entire center managed to fail at every single goal.
But just in case you still don’t get the picture, here is how one online reviewer summed up the visit: “it was like being in the LEGO movie and forced to sing “Everything Is Awesome.’” Yup, that’s about right.
We just couldn’t wait to leave.
Walk across the grassy plaza and come into a completely different world. (Okay, so we actually did that this in reverse order, and no doubt that contributed to our outrage: it was doubly infuriating to spend a morning in one of the best museums we have ever been to, only to end up at the World of Coca Cola of Nonsense and Time Wasting, Soul Sucking Idiocy.)
The National Center for Civil and Human Rights is worth every penny. A visit there is thought-provoking, educational, and it is hard to imagine how anyone could walk away unchanged.
The main level of the building holds an extensive exhibit on the main moments of the U.S. Civil Rights movement, mainly from the early 1950’s up to the assassination of MLK. I loved that they included the first and last names of so many of the lesser-known (or completely unknown) players in this significant chapter of U.S. history, and it was easy to get a sense of the large numbers of regular people who put jobs or studies on hold, or who did not have great eloquence and did not make impassioned speeches in Washington D.C., who never wrote any letters from jail, but whose devotion to the cause of freedom was no less strong.
The “Woolworth’s lunch counter simulator” (above) was probably one of the most powerful installations. The staff restricts this one to children age 10 and older because of the emotional intensity of the experience. With headphones on, and your eyes closed, the exhibit simulates the noise and hate-filled threats of the famous sit-ins. It is hard to sit through to the end of the few minutes, it is so powerful. We think the Center deserves five stars for this exhibit alone.
At the start of the tour, a history of the role the city of Atlanta and her mayors and other leaders played in the Civil Rights Movement is provided. This museum did a better job than the World Of Coca Cola of highlighting the not-insignificant role that the Coca Cola Company played in the U.S. Civil Rights movement. It turns out that the CEO at the time (whose name I cannot remember, unfortunately), along with other prominent businessmen and leaders in the city of Atlanta, came out in support of the Civil Rights Movement speakers and protesters. The support of such influential people contributed to a change in popular opinion in the local scene which is worthy of noting.
The exhibit also highlighted those who spoke out against the Movement. On the main floor of the museum, there are video samples of speeches of national and local leaders’ views on the social position of African Americans during the 1950’s and 60’s.
Even my kids noticed just how much of the philosophical foundations for justifying racial prejudice, and sometimes even the very phrasing, is identical to some of the political rhetoric on our national stage today. It was jarring. So, at the very start of the museum tour, it was easy to see how far we still have to go to really, truly root out racism in our country, and that was a sobering note to start on. It would have been too easy to complete a walk-through without realizing that this is not simply a museum of ancient history, but of a continuing legacy still very much with us today. The museum designers had that foresight, and did their best to ensure that wouldn’t be possible.
Then there is the upper level: the entire floor is devoted to the global fight for human rights today, and highlights everything from the rights of women and children, to freedom of access to information, to environmental and economic justice, and more.
There is no over-stating it. This is a truly excellent museum and deserving of a leisurely and contemplative visit. The creators of this Center should be very proud of the quality of the work they have produced. Although very young children are not likely to be appreciate it, kids ages 8 and up will probably be able to grasp a good amount, thanks to clear and vivid installations.
So eat a good meal before you go, make sure you have a full afternoon, or even a full day, and linger for a long time in this place. You will not be sorry.