Historical Significance

Paul Steinbach Headshot

Today's campus athletic museums offer dynamic looks at a program's past, often with an eye toward selling the future


University of Wisconsin head football coach Barry Alvarez strolled through the game balls, player portraits and championship trophies illuminated under glass in the richly paneled lobby of new football offices located within the recently renovated Camp Randall Stadium. As he walked, Alvarez emphasized the importance of his program's traditions and accomplishments. But this was no private tour. This was a prepackaged segment produced by ESPN for insertion during its coverage of the Badgers' Sept. 11 home game against UNLV. Such is the current level of national interest in historic sports exhibits.

Nearly as long as there have been organized athletics, there have been organized means by which to honor athletic achievement. And by today's standards, the Wisconsin example, while stately, may seem somewhat subdued. That's because starting in the 1980s, campus-based athletic museums and halls of fame began to morph from the plaques-on-walls, trophies-behind-glass model to more dynamic, interactive displays. "We put things in a context and tell the stories behind what happened - to be more entertaining," says Jerry Murphy, president of Murphy & Orr Exhibits. "Instead of having an Orange Bowl trophy sitting on a pedestal in a cabinet, we might have an Orange Bowl trophy, but there's also a story about the important plays of the game and the outstanding players. There will be some pictures and a program cover, maybe even a watch that was awarded. We try to take more of an exhibition approach to it."

"Every hall of fame is set up so differently," adds Eric Ackerman, vice president of design-build firm Forty Nine Degrees. "They're not getting away from the cleats, the jerseys, the signed footballs and trophies. All that stuff's there. But now there's flexibility in terms of offering video footage or a still shot with music behind it or a voice-over explaining how that trophy was won. It's about making it a lot more exciting than a traditional museum walkthrough."

Today's exhibits are less about bronze busts and more about full-body cast figures sprinting from a starting block or swimming in a simulated pool. A life-size plaster quarterback outfitted in a school's throwback uniform and antiquated equipment might be seen launching a pass to a receiver clad in contemporary gear. As Terry Healy, a principal at design firm Gallagher & Associates, notes, today's hall of fame experience offers "something a little more kinetic."

And, in some cases, more current. Initial designs for a new sports museum at Arizona State University dedicated the vast majority of available space to displays highlighting a historical timeline, but athletic administrators thought that would project the image of a has-been school to recruits. The final design focuses sharply on storylines that have developed within each sport during the past decade, sending a clear message that "this is what we're doing today," Healy says. "It's taking their best story and putting it forward for the greatest impact on their audience."

Identifying target audiences is among the first steps taken when planning a sports museum or hall of fame. In addition to recruits, different display designs may cater to current student-athletes, current and prospective members of the general student body, alumni, fans and donors. "All decisions are based on hitting different audiences that come through," Healy says. "It's very calculated."

"We start by defining the visitor experience," adds Frank Douglas, president of The Douglas Group. "What do you want them to learn? How do you want them to feel? Is this a recruiting tool for young athletes? Is this a public-relations tool for the university? Is it a public-relations tool for the athletic department? There are a number of different reasons why schools build these things. In many cases, it's all of the above."

Answers to such questions are typically reached by committee, with input coming from representatives of the athletic and sports information departments, the athletic development office and, in the case of a sport-specific exhibit, an assistant to that sport's head coach. Point persons are identified and lines of communication established. "I need the athletic department and the sports information department to get my job done," Healy says. "There is no way that I can go on campus or go into an athletic department and be able to tell their story as well as they can tell it. I can present it better than they can present it, but I need them."

How best to present the story - and where - are two important considerations that must be addressed early on in the design process. New or expanded stadiums and arenas make for inviting exhibit sites due to their abundance of available square footage and their ability through sheer scale to minimize daily operational costs. Displays may be concentrated in one area or spread out around the perimeter of the facility. Some schools, such as Arizona State, are siting their displays in large lobby spaces connecting multiple athletic facilities. Others, such as the University of Iowa, have built standalone, multistory museums.

Sport-specific displays are often housed within that sport's home venue. It's not uncommon for golf exhibits to be located within the course clubhouse, for example. But even when exhibits are scattered around campus, designers have succeeded in branding the collective nostalgic experience by creating a consistent graphic vocabulary for all sites - from indoor displays to outdoor plazas - regardless of proximity. "When people leave one area and go on to the next, they'll get the feeling that the same athletic department is being represented," Healy says.

Choosing what storylines to emphasize can be challenging, particularly in all-sports museum settings. Certain sports teams on any given campus invariably win more championships or produce more award recipients than others. "Whatever the sport is, whatever the measure is, you start with the best and work down," suggests Douglas. "It requires a good deal of tact on the part of athletic directors to determine where to stop."

Museum designers are well aware of gender sensitivity in the post-Title IX era, but they don't necessarily feel pressure to portion out display space equally among men's and women's sports, according to Murphy. Certain programs (think football) have existed on campus much longer than others (think softball). It's more often a matter of finding something special to highlight - at least one or two outstanding athletes or major upsets produced over the years - within each sports program.

Some athletic departments attempt to remove all subjectivity by establishing specific criteria for admittance into a so-called Hall of Champions. Many collegiate museums devote space to those athletes who have gone on to compete at the Olympic or professional levels, or even those who have excelled in non-athletic aspects of life. Some highlight community service being performed by the student-athletes currently on campus. "It's one audience that we don't really talk about too much, but the parents see that and love it," Healy says.

Once storylines have been laid out, storytelling props are gathered. Championship trophies are easily found on campus in existing display cases or coaches' offices, and sports information files are often overflowing with vintage photography. However, a "call for artifacts" made by phone or via e-mail to alumni, fans and former players can turn up a wealth of additional material - everything from foam "Number 1" fingers to game-worn shoes. Local sports bars may prove particularly fruitful, according to Douglas. "Athletic departments are not in the artifact business, and these things just have a tendency to walk when there's no curator to control them," he says. It's strongly recommended that schools create a computerized list of all available materials, including a brief description of each item, its size and location. Says Murphy, "They need to think of their history as an archive."

Football is one sport that typically produces more than enough memorabilia for display, adds Douglas, "but not always that Rosetta Stone piece. What is the real jewel? Can you get the original Heisman Trophy? Can you get that game ball that's so important to the program?"

Some items simply can't be secured. For example, football's national championship trophy once traveled annually from one recipient to the next, leaving past winners with nothing in their permanent possession. Individual student-athlete honorees, meanwhile, may want their original Butkus Award or Outland Trophy to reside safely in their own homes. In either case, exact duplicates can often be purchased through the original award manufacturer, right down to the detail found in the engraving. Duplicates have also been made so that the same trophy can be represented within separate all-sports and sport-specific displays on the same campus, Murphy says.

Then again, some items are truly one of a kind. During assembly of the University of Georgia's sports hall of fame in the mid1980s, one designer uncovered a turn-of-the-century bronze plaque dedicated to a mother who successfully lobbied the state Legislature against banning football despite the fact her son had been killed in a Bulldog uniform. "That was an interesting story, and it was a beautiful plaque. So we remounted it and told that story," says Murphy, adding that the unusual find transcended the UGA program. "It was an early historical piece about football, because there was a day when people thought football should be banned."

Once a museum has been open for a full year - or, in the case of a sport-specific display, a single season - and fans can see for themselves the environment in which their personal collectibles might be showcased, general public donations begin pouring in, according to Healy. "The players and great moments are one thing, but there could be 70,000 to 80,000 people in a stadium who only get to watch," he says. "Bringing in their traditions and that color is very gratifying for alumni and fans coming through. It's also a very good image piece for the athletes to actually understand that they have a dedicated fan base."

Of course, more stuff - no matter the source - requires additional space. "Whenever you plan your hall of fame, you need to plan on some extra room to expand," Murphy says. "Hopefully, teams will win more championships and produce more All-Americas. It is a dynamic situation."

Where space is already at a premium, vintage photography can effectively convey a program's history more efficiently than three-dimensional artifacts. Arenas, in particular, lend themselves to expansive photographic murals, often taking the form of a historical timeline stretching along the curve of a pedestrian concourse. "Generally speaking, photographs are 4 by 6 inches or 8 by 10, but we can use a drum scanner to blow them up on a 20-foot wall while still preserving the integrity of a black-and-white team photo from the 1950s," says Greg Lach, an account manager at Ze Design.

Large-scale digital graphics are increasingly replacing those produced by traditional ink-jet means, which don't offer the same longevity, according to Matt Carden, executive vice president of display fabricator 1220 Exhibits. Photographic imagery is even being applied to exterior windows with dramatic effect. At the University of Oklahoma's basketball museum, a window-applied end-court crowd scene serves as a naturally backlit backdrop to an actual basketball goal on display. As a result, patrons feel like a visiting free-throw shooter facing the Sooner faithful. "It's about having people come in and really feel a part of it," Carden says. "You're not just walking through a library of past history."

In that sense, audiovisual technology has become a sports museum mainstay, offering moving imagery, marching band music and crowd noise to the visitor experience - automatically, in some cases, via motion sensors. Meanwhile, touch screens allow visitors to search for and select what they want to see. "For today's audience, it has to be more interactive than just walking through and seeing a jersey, walking by and seeing a ball," says Ackerman.

Healy advises that schools keep exhibits fresh by adding new footage to existing video loops and rotating case contents with the change of sports seasons. "At ASU, one of the cases has Pat Tillman's stuff in it," he says. "But throughout the seasons of a given year, they can put in stuff that's current, so the space looks a lot livelier."

With photos and artifacts selected and safely secured, the design team must next decide how best to showcase these assets. Materials specified for construction, from display cases to carpeting, can contribute greatly to a museum's desired atmosphere and functionality.

Football exhibits located inside the entrance of the University of Oklahoma's Barry Switzer Center take their materials-selection cues from Memorial Stadium. A first floor serves as a lobby space with donor recognition video presentations. The second floor depicts a field-level perspective, with green carpet and inlaid white lines. (Healy first specified synthetic turf, but discovered it would be too difficult to vacuum.) The third floor features concrete-colored, textured carpeting to simulate a pedestrian concourse, complete with an opening in the floor surrounded by the same type of brick, stone and cast iron used in the stadium's recent renovation. Visitors on multiple levels can look up to a ceiling painted blue and white to resemble an Oklahoma sky. "You get the idea that you're back in the stadium," says Healy, admitting that the design was a tough sell with administrators. "At first, that whole concept was a little too playful for them, compared to maroon carpet, dark wood and bronze."

Hardwood is recognized for its classical richness, and appeals to older visitors, whereas metal and glass offer a contemporary, even high-tech draw for a younger demographic. Consideration should also be given to matching wood types and tones in the event the display appears within an existing building, as well as installation costs and maintenance concerns. Hardwoods and veneers require initial staining and frequent polishing, while laminates don't, according to Carden. Naturally, extra detail, such as photographic imagery etched into panes of glass, will mean extra upfront dollars. And while the price of flat-screen monitors is falling, audio/visual equipment still needs to be programmed and maintained at additional cost. Murphy notes that, while it contributes to operational costs, artificial lighting is preferable to daylighting, since direct UV rays hasten the degradation of artifacts.

Durability of display materials should also be factored. "You can get the job done cheaper using lesser-grade materials, but when kids start tugging on them, when people start bumping into them, when you wipe them down a couple of times, did you use vinyl lettering or did you use silk screening on the back of Plexiglas so it's not going to rub off?" asks Carden.

In the end, museum space dedicated to a Top 20 football program, for example, can cost well in excess of $1 million. Capital is nearly always raised in advance through private donations, with designers sometimes presenting renderings to potential donors themselves. Invariably, donors receive their own due within the walls of the finished museum. Inductees to the University of Oregon Athletic Hall of Fame receive a plaque that includes their photo and a brief profile of their achievement. Million-dollar donors get the same treatment.

"Whenever you're recognizing people, it's a great opportunity to enlist support," says Tommy Griffin, president of Presentation Design Group LLC. "They're not giving their money to get their name up on the wall; they're giving their money because they want to be associated with the program. But what better way to associate them than to put them into the mix of the most outstanding athletes of the program? You tie those two things together, and it's a slam dunk."

While highlighting an athletic department's past, campus-based sports museums can be actively used to help secure a successful future, and final designs should take into account how the space will be used. For example, allowing ample floor space for the staging of fund-raising dinners allows major donors to be surrounded by reminders of school pride as they're being asked to help fund the athletic department's next major development project. Display cases can be built with retractable casters, allowing for rearrangements to facilitate crowd flow. Providing display areas located within larger administrative buildings with their own visitor control points allows for private VIP luncheons to be held behind closed doors during the building's regular business hours.

That said, most campus-based museums have ample hours of public operation, and rare is the kind that charges an admission fee. (An exception to the rule, Iowa charges $4, with price breaks for seniors, children under 12 and groups of 10 or more.) "We actually promote these as destination points for the campus and the university," Healy says.

And much like the arms race that drives the design and construction of collegiate competition facilities, the museum wars have begun, with one school trying to prove itself a greater exhibitionist than the next. Even the same sports architecture firms that have facilitated the stadium-and-arena building boom are now jumping into the display fray.

"A lot depends on the school and how it wants to portray itself," Murphy says. "It's hard to top ourselves every time, but we can probably do something for Georgia Tech that they'll like better than what we did for Arkansas, but Arkansas will still like theirs better than what we did for Georgia Tech."

"No two universities are alike, just because of where they are located in the country and because of their different sports traditions, different academic traditions and different designations in terms of being a state school or private school," Lach says. "Each one is unique, and trying to design a hall of fame using a cookie-cutter formula doesn't really fit into what universities want to do now."

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