It was a small detail, really. The air conditioner had been left on in the cramped motel room, its thin stream of air ruffling the pages of a newspaper tossed carelessly onto the bed. And yet it was that simple detail that brought the exhibit to life.

With the air conditioner humming and the newspaper fluttering, I half expected to see the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. burst through the door of Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel. After all, he had to be at a rally in support of Memphis' striking sanitation workers that night and needed to get ready. But then my heart sank when I realized he wasn't going to come through that door after all, because he'd just been shot dead on its other side.

An expertly crafted museum exhibit is a powerful tool, transporting you back in time so convincingly that you almost forget where you are and what is real. At the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, the exhibit of King's motel rooms in the partially preserved Lorraine -- looking out onto the concrete balcony where he was shot -- is so well done that it takes your breath away.

With that newspaper softly fluttering and Mahalia Jackson's rich contralto singing "Precious Lord, Take My Hand" in the background (King's favorite spiritual, and the song he'd asked a buddy to play moments before he was shot), your heart simply aches. You're also impelled to creep up to the window to search for the very spot on the balcony where King stood nearly 40 years ago, unknowingly in an assassin's sights. Heart pounding illogically, your eyes quickly shift to the former flophouse across the street, where you half expect to see the muzzle of a rifle poking through a window.

I stood in the exhibit for a long time, unable to move. Suddenly a boisterous group of teens neared, and I prepared to have my moving experience come to a screeching halt. But when the kids turned the corner and stepped into the exhibit, they quickly fell silent and stood transfixed. Finally one young man said softly, "Holy crap, this is awesome."

Attendance on the rise

It was a stroke of genius when a group of prominent Memphians formed the Martin Luther King Memorial Foundation in 1982 to save the Lorraine, which had fallen into decline since the assassination. And it was a stroke of luck that the motel's owner, Walter Lane Bailey, had kept a couple of rooms as a shrine to King and Bailey's wife, Lorraine, who died of a brain hemorrhage several hours after King was shot.

The museum opened in 1991, and in 2002, an $11 million expansion, "Exploring the Legacy," opened across the street in the former Main Street Rooming House where James Earl Ray fired the shot that killed King.

Since its opening, museum attendance has steadily climbed, reaching almost 200,000 last year. Staff members think 2008 could be a banner year, with the 40th anniversary of King's assassination on April 4 and more than a dozen special events planned in Memphis to mark the anniversary, including five at the museum.

Outside, part of the Lorraine Motel's original facade has been preserved, including Rooms 306 and 307, where King stayed. Inside, exhibits chronicle black history from the origin of the slave trade in the English colonies to the start of the civil rights movement.

Initially, the exhibits are text-heavy. But they pick up steam with large, gripping displays on events like the 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycott, which began after Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger, and the 1960s lunch counter sit-ins protesting segregation. Just when you think you can't absorb any more information, you turn the corner and find yourself in the King motel room exhibit.

"This is the most emotional part of the museum," said Allison Fouché, communications coordinator, "because it's the place where the man took his last breath. I feel his presence there still, I really do." She's not alone; Fouché said she's seen many people leave crying, and a burly Chicago Bulls basketball player asked a staff member to direct him to a spot where he could weep in private.

Addition also mesmerizes

Across the street, "Exploring the Legacy" is nearly as powerful. Visitors can view re-creations of Room 5B, where Ray stayed, and the bathroom where he fired at King through a window later found partially open. Other displays chronicle what happened after King died, including crime scene shots and sketches, and note that some people, including the King family, believe Ray was innocent and King's murder was a conspiracy. In deference to these views, museum displays reference Ray as King's "alleged" assassin.

Now mesmerized by the flophouse rooms, I peered out the window at the Lorraine balcony as Ray did 40 years ago. A cluster of men stood in the parking lot below, pointing up at the balcony and Room 306. For a fleeting moment I thought they were King's associates, who had quickly gathered after hearing the gunshot. But it was simply a group of youths who had arrived for a tour. Once again, the National Civil Rights Museum had worked its magic.

Melanie Radzicki McManus is a freelance writer who lives near Madison, Wis.