When Sheffield Hale stepped into the bright sun outside the Atlanta History Center one recent afternoon, he grinned widely at what he saw. A handful of people sat around long wooden tables on the patio outside the center’s new coffeehouse. They drank coffee and checked their phones. It was exactly what Hale had hoped for.
“Look at these happy people!” he said. “When other people figure it out, this will be the coolest place in Atlanta!”
Hale, president and CEO of the History Center, is on a mission. He wants to lure more people to the Buckhead-based center and its programs so they can learn about Atlanta, and, he says, figure out how to make it a better city. To do that, the 57-year-old history-lover-turned-lawyer has overseen an opening up of the museum on West Paces Ferry Road. The center is being transformed, both physically and philosophically.
The goal? “To make it more relevant and bigger than its footprint in Buckhead,” he said. “To take the assets that we have and make them even more available. … It was all sitting there, waiting to happen.”
One of Hale’s first acts as president was to take down a fence that blocked the building from the view of drivers passing on West Paces Ferry Road. Now passersby can’t ignore the place.
Hale knew his way around the history center long before taking over as its CEO and president six years ago. He grew up in the Brookwood Hills neighborhood and his dad, a prominent Atlanta lawyer, chaired the center’s board at times. Sheffield’s college thesis on longtime, powerful Georgia politician Richard Russell Jr.’s election to the Senate was published in the center’s journal. He keeps a copy of the issue in his office. “It’s on the cover,” he said after digging out a copy. “I got the cover!”
The younger Hale served on the board himself at times and raised money for the history center. Since he took over as president and CEO in March 2012, the center has made about $50 million in improvements to its 33-acre Buckhead campus.
New structures include a round hall visible from West Paces where the still-being-restored Cyclorama painting of “The Battle of Atlanta” hangs; a glass-walled walkway that houses a full-size, 19th century locomotive called the “Texas”; a new entryway and atrium that are home to the coffeehouse, a new restaurant, a new bookstore, and a new garden.
The Cyclorama exhibit is projected to open in the fall. Now that construction on the center’s Buckhead campus is wrapping up, Hale and his staff and board are considering what comes next. He wants the organization to open itself up in a different way
“The next thing, in my mind, is to do more programming all over Atlanta,” he said.
Hale wants history center programs to bring new people in by focusing on subjects drawn from neighborhoods and ethnic communities. He wants to go to the places where people live. He pointed out that the center’s “Party with the Past” series has popped up in places as varied as the Sweet Auburn Curb Market, Oakland Cemetery and Smith’s Olde Bar.
The idea, Hale says, is to show Atlantans how their community got to be what it is and to connect residents with the city’s history and culture. Hale argues we should better understand the past in order to live together in the present and future.
Consider the Civil War. Atlanta is filled with monuments, streets and sites that carry Civil War history. How their tales are told can make a difference. Hale, who recently co-chaired a city committee tasked with recommending what to do about the monuments and street names, argues that it’s important not to elevate the myths that sprout around some historical sites like poison ivy.
“You just talk about the truth,” he said. “You talk about the facts, [about] what happened, to get people to look past the myths of what happened. What we try to do is take the temperature down, so we can talk about what happened. Yes, slavery was the cause of the Civil War. That’s game, set, match.”
Why bother to even talk about things that happened generations ago?
“What’s the ‘so what?’’” Hale said, “The ‘so what’ is to make a better community. It’s not to preserve history in some sanitized way, but to … use the history to make them more interested in the community. What that does is make a better Atlanta. … It’s by recognizing we have a common history and we need to understand all of our histories to move forward.
“We need to show a holistic view of community. Your piece of it is part of a bigger piece.”
In other words, we share the past. “We’re all in the soup together. Let’s understand the different ingredients that make up the soup,” Hale said.
How to make a start? In Hale’s vision, maybe it’s enough just to sit down together with a cup of coffee on a sunny afternoon.