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Voices from the past

Listen to ‘Alabama Voices’ in new wing at State Archives

By John Brightman Brock

The new gallery will cover 10,500 square feet on the second floor of the archives.
The new gallery will cover 10,500 square feet on the second floor of the archives.

Double doors at the end of a second floor hallway soon will open wide into a past life you might have forgotten about.

Going inside the Museum of Alabama’s second floor gallery, “Alabama Voices,” you’ll enter a realm where history’s passages are freed from the confines of old history books, where cherished memories are unleashed from artifacts long discarded.

Catch your breath, and imagine a huge room divided into 10 captivating sections.

A gallery of huge proportions

When this new gallery – all 10,500 square feet of it – opens next year, it will be 2014, but you’ll swear the magic of “Alabama Voices” is carrying you back through 300 years of state history.

Alabama Voices is designed to be the centerpiece of the Museum of Alabama expansion taking shape inside the second floor of the new wing of the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery, says director Steve Murray. “There’s nothing else quite like it in terms of the story it’s going to tell. It’s a fantastic story.”

Opening day ceremonies, planned for sometime next year, will pay tribute to an aggressive capital campaign funding the expansion through the efforts of leaders across the state – including the Alabama Department of Archives and History Foundation, the Alabama Legislature, archivists, archeologists, leaders in education and philanthropy “who helped us articulate the vision we had,” Murray says.

He’s expecting about 1,000 people from across Alabama to attend, which would be much like the number who attended the opening of the first phase of the Museum, on Aug. 27, 2011, where the galleries “First Alabamians” and “The Land” were showcased.

Those galleries are just a step away from the big double doors of “Alabama Voices.”

Get prepared

As you enter in to the newest gallery, be prepared for a “wall of faces.”

“It will have an intro area beautifully lit where you are facing this giant wall of faces of people who lived in Alabama back to the early 1700s, and up to the present,” Murray says. “They will represent Alabamians in every walk of life.”

Among those static images are three large videos featuring revolving faces. “These are the faces that bring those ‘Alabama Voices’ that you will hear,” Murray says. There will be 22 audio video exhibits, along with ambient audio throughout.

“You are about to be introduced to an incredible cast of history – white, black, Hispanic – from the greatest wealth you have ever known to people who worked hard to survive as enslaved people on plantations. This runs the gamut from the Creek Indians who dominated the Alabama landscape in the early 1700s to the German engineers who came to Huntsville that sent Americans into space,” Murray says.

Making it a reality are some very talented contractors, according to Murray. “Then there’s the team members of the staff, and the third group are the donors who have allowed us raise $7 million to make this possible.” The first phase cost $1.7 million, Murray says.

A time to measure

From now through summer, that large space at the end of the second floor hallway will be the busy scene of drywall construction, electrical configurations and space prep.

“About July or August, our exhibit fabricators will show up with materials… cases, cabinetry, rail systems, beautiful free standing glass panels… all showing up on tractor trailers through late summer through the fall,” Murray says. Eventually, the area will be home to 800 artifacts.

“Everything is to be measured and photographed,” Murray says. “Everything to the tiniest bottom off of clothing, a political button up to a textile loom weighing 2,200 pounds.”

“This final process is born of a concept and vision of Ed Bridges, the former director of the Archives for 30 years,” he says. “It is very heavily shaped by his vision. All of us are committed to doing this for the people of the state … And it’s important for us to do it for Ed. He spent 30 years working here in the Archives, gathering research, writing, developing the best possibilities of an incredibly rich history.

For Bridges, it has been, and still is, all about Alabama.

“I believe this new exhibit will be a remarkable addition to the cultural life of Alabama.  It is the first museum effort ever to tell the history of the state as a coherent overall story – from the geological forces that shaped the land to the start of the 21st century,” Bridges said in an e-mail.

“It will be a place where Alabamians and our guests can see and interact with this story, a place of education and personal enrichment. A team of distinguished Alabama historians, the staff of the Archives, and some of the leading museum designers and builders in the U.S. have worked for several years to make this new exhibit possible,” says Bridges.

Murray says he appreciates the encouragement ADAH has received.

“We are very grateful to Gov. Robert Bentley and the legislative leadership for providing resources to support the operation of the department and our new museum exhibits. The state’s support for operations is especially important and appreciated in light of the $7 million that we raised in private sources to cover the cost of construction.”

Meanwhile, the project is on schedule, Murray says, “and we are working very hard to keep it that way. …”