Familiar sights crowd the new exhibit at the Atlanta History Center. Georgia Tech’s Ramblin’ Wreck holds center stage. A billboard-ready Chick-fil-A cow protests in one corner. A few feet away, a Varsity car-hop’s tray hangs from a door of a ’63 Plymouth Valiant.
It’s no surprise that the items in this particular museum show seem familiar. They’re all part of Atlanta. Each was chosen to represent some important feature of the city, the exhibit’s curators say. The exhibit, “Atlanta in 50 Objects,” which opened Jan. 16 and is to be on display through July 10, is intended to show, in its own way, what makes Atlanta Atlanta.
“I think my favorite thing is the King manuscript,” guest curator Amy Wilson said on the day before the show opened, as she and History Center exhibitions director Don Rooney made last-minute tweaks to the exhibit. She pointed toward a case holding a series of handwritten pages from a yellow legal pad on which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had written the acceptance speech for his 1964 Nobel Prize. “It’s the original manuscript.”

Amy Wilson and Don Rooney with Georgia Tech’s “Rambling Wreck,” a part of the Atlanta History Center’s “Atlanta in 50 objects” exhibit.

Wilson and Rooney started work on the project in November 2014. The original idea behind the exhibit – gathering objects that represent important themes or events in history – had been used in a few other high-profile museum shows and books, such as “The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects.” The History Center wanted to add another element to their show. They wanted to let Atlantans pick what should be included.
“We turned it over to Atlanta,” Rooney said.
The curators solicited ideas online and through a suggestion box at the center. Wilson and Rooney said they built a database of 200 to 300 ideas and let the most-nominated notions rise to the top of the list. “The folks who gave us these suggestions had more knowledge on these subjects than we did,” Rooney said. “I think museums have evolved to realize they have to share the authority. The authorship of this exhibit was the public.”
List of subjects in hand, Wilson and Rooney set to work finding the objects to illustrate the various subjects. It made quite an eclectic collection.
What made the cut? A 1996 Olympic torch and a classic Coke bottle, a mockup of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport’s train-to-the-planes and a 1960s uniform for a Delta Air Lines stewardess, a model of downtown from architect John Portman’s offices showing the buildings he’d designed and developed, a World Series ring from the late broadcaster Skip Carey, a figure of a dying soldier from the Cyclorama, the bat Hank Aaron used to hit his 600th homer, a T-shirt from the Peachtree Road Race, a Centers for Disease Control microscope, Atlanta Constitution Editor Ralph McGill’s Presidential Medal of Freedom, a Time magazine naming Ted Turner “Man of the Year.”
Rooney said the curators couldn’t get everything they wanted into the display. They asked for an original typescript of “Gone With The Wind,” but that had to remain in a vault. At one point he thought it would be a good idea to include the cockpit from a Delta airplane, but decided it was just too big to fit.
Still, some off-beat surprises did manage to show up in the crowded exhibit hall. A mold of the Atlanta Zoo’s favorite gorilla, the late Willie B., has his handprints displayed near a car from Priscilla the Pink Pig, the children’s ride that once graced Rich’s downtown department store. Along with a display about the civil rights movement is an ax handle signed by segregationist Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox. The rise of the movie-making business is illustrated through a signature sword one character uses to lop the heads off zombies in “The Walking Dead.”
And there’s a big banner from the Chattahoochee Raft Race, a Memorial Day event that drew thousands to ride Atlanta’s river in the 1970s.
What does the exhibit say about Atlanta? “It’s a very diverse place,” Wilson said.
And, she said, looking at the cases around her, “it shows a lot of fun. When you look around, there are a lot of things that are fun.”