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8/7/08
A Museum for Good Sports
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Spending an afternoon at the Sports Museum of America may not yet be on your list alongside the Met Museum or MoMA, but consider adding it. This new museum is located on the second floor of the Beaver Street side of 26 Broadway in lower Manhattan (adjacent to a massive gift shop), a location near ground zero chosen by Philip Schwalb (the museum’s founder and CEO) in part to symbolize resilience and strength. For the opening of this new museum, SundayArts recently sent Thirteen/WNET president Neal Shapiro to interview Philip Schwalb about the its creation collection.

The museum snakes through many galleries, each showcasing a different sport. The breadth of the material can be dizzying, but it’s well organized and edited. And if you don’t get that Wide World of Sports “thrill of victory, agony of defeat” (mainly the former) feeling by the time you leave, you’re a robot.

The Heisman Memorial TrophyIn addition to single sport-dedicated rooms are some broader exhibits – a fascinating display of famous athletes as kids (or artifacts from their young playing days); the Billie Jean King International Women’s Sports Center including the first Hall of Fame for female athletes; a section on breaking barriers (race, gender, shape, etc). There’s also a room on the Olympics, including a sampling of gold medals throughout time. More booty can be found later on: Superbowl and World Series rings of obscene heft and taste symbolize the rarified intersection of ultimate victory and base materialism, otherwise pretty well avoided in the museum. But they’re also fascinating for this reason.

A major feature is the Heisman Trophy hall, where the coveted trophy is located amid a pantheon of past winners. The relatively small bronze statue sits at the room’s hub – remarkably, uncovered, so you can paw it – and there’s plenty of room around it to make your own Heisman pose for keepsake pix. The little guy was moved here after its previous home, the New York Athletic Club, was damaged in the 9/11 attacks. A wall features information on the current Heisman winner, Tim Tebow.

Each sport’s gallery has a unique design, both inventive and well-executed – one of the big surprises about the SMA. I expected all the artifacts and some films and collages, but came away impressed with the thought and creativity that went into each module. In the auto racing room, which is dominated by Jimmie Johnson’s Nascar car, through portholes you can view drivers’ helmets, shoes, and memorabilia; mesh covers the windows, transforming into a giant screen onto which an oval race is projected. Neat floor projections show a woman swimming the length of the Women’s Sports Center. The theater world should come here and take notes.

The baseball room has bats from Ichiro and A-Rod that you can pick up and compare, and balls painted with finger placement diagrams so you can feel what a curveball grip is. The interactive displays (Cisco is a key partner) are full of clever inventions: to view clips of famous baseball plays, you intuitively scroll through the selection by pivoting a marquee-like panel to the left. More old school are Superbowl-winning Eli Manning and David Tyree’s Giants helmets; newsworthy items like this will be rotated.

You can also pretend you’re a play-by-play announcer, recording your own “shot heard ’round the world” call as the video screens. In the football hall, you can play referee and review a close call by scrolling back and forth the play’s video. And there’s a section devoted to fans and their bobble-headed paraphernalia. The “Hall of Halls” includes booths on more than 50 sports’ halls of fame and associations. Via a kiosk you can enter your email address to receive info from any of them. And these are just a handful of highlights.

The one main drawback is the price of admission, which is $27 for adults, lower for kids, seniors, students, and groups. They also offer adult “season tickets” for $55 (and lower), a relative bargain. But if you are a fan, or even if you’re on the bubble, it’s worth adding to your list.

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.