Thursday, April 07, 2011

Keeping The Hall Of Fame & Museum Updated & Fresh

Keeping any museum updated is a challenge the curators and staff at The National Baseball Hall Of Fame & Museum constantly face. As Nats320's interview with Hall Of Fame Curator John Odell continues, we look into how the museum attempts to reel in guests for that 2nd, 3rd or 4th visit to Cooperstown--while always thinking ahead to the daily challenges of picking up fresh artifacts and memorabilia for a sport with an ever changing storyline.

Nats320: "Switching gears a little bit. Obviously, you have to keep on display some permanent items that are drawing cards for the museum such as the Babe Ruth display. How then do you go about keeping things fresh to draw in fans for more?"
John Odell: "We do that in three different ways. One of them is to have a few temporary exhibits that are new each year. Most museums will do a couple of temporary exhibits per year. We do one temporary exhibit per year because most of our people come during a swath of a three to four month period of time (late spring/summer). And if we do two other exhibits we are spending a lot of capital--losing time, money and resources--for the handful of people who see it in February. That’s not a good expenditure of resources. So that one temporary exhibit is located outside of the Today’s Game Locker Room area. Right now we have our Baseball Cards exhibit up there." 

"We also have a photo exhibit of The New York Yankees that comes from a series of Associated Press photos which led to a book and we worked with them to put some of those photos up on the wall. Each year we have a new World Series exhibit. Each year we update our Today’s Game Locker Room for the various teams and for what happened during the past calendar year." 

"Then in the timeline section and other areas, we are constantly moving items in and out all the time. Sometimes they come down because we want to do research on them. Something else will replace it. Other times we have new permanent exhibits--such as the Hank Aaron display. That leads to holes in other displays. All these items are gathered from collections and they go into the new exhibit. And we then go back to our holes to back fill."

Empty Walter Johnson Locker From Griffith Stadium
"This is exactly what I am doing right now with a Records Exhibit that is coming up. Here’s a spot where we have pulled Walter Johnson’s Jersey. We needed to put something else in this spot. We have a physical space and we want to make sure that we tell the same story. Unfortunately for us, we don’t have an artifact for every Hall Of Famer. For Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Honus Wagner, for Rickey Henderson--we have a few items we can pick and choose from. And if we happen to be using one of those items for a particular purpose, there is often a different one that we can bring in to replace." 

"As we move things up, we move other things back down into storage. There is only a finite amount of space upstairs so anything that moves up, something has got to come down. And anything that comes down allows us to bring things up. It’s this large zero sum game--kind of like the number puzzle you sit around trying to make work. That’s how we do that. It’s a combination of temporary exhibits, constantly refreshing our permanent exhibits and creating new permanent exhibits like Viva Baseball, like the upcoming Records Room. A good example of a temporary exhibit will be the Cricket & Baseball show beginning on April 9th, 2011 in the Education Gallery."
"Cricket & Baseball is going to open up then. That will be a great opportunity for members to come back again.  One of the things we have learned is that our temporary exhibits don’t drive new visitation very much. Permanent exhibits don’t really either, but what they can do is give people a good reason to come back and to keep people from not coming back. If you really know that it’s exactly the way it was three years ago, then there is no reason to come back. But if you’ve heard the museum has done some changes, you might want to come back and see what they are. Or, ‘if you wouldn’t mind going, I would like to go as well.’"

"Viva Baseball, like we do with the Women in Baseball, like with The Negro Leagues exhibit, as we obtain new artifacts--we will rotate some things in and out. The story is complete as told but it can always be brought up to date. And that’s what we will continue to do."

Nats320: "We’ve talked about how there are so many things not on display in the collection. Does that mean there are more reference materials for researchers than artifacts for fans of baseball to see?"
John Odell: "10 to 15% of the artifacts are on display at any one time. Yeah, the other artifacts are available for us to do research, for outside scholars to come in and do research. But really, and we learned this with Viva Baseball, very often we will have acquired artifacts that have been here through a generation of curators they’ve just been waiting for us to come along with this new exhibit to put it in. One of the artifacts I really enjoyed finding down in collections and on exhibit in Viva Baseball is a ball from the very first Caribbean Series from back in the 1940’s, right after World War II." 
"This was a ball from that series and somebody thought: ‘Oh, let’s send it to the Hall Of Fame.’ We got that and as far as I know it’s never been on exhibit until Viva Baseball. Once we started doing this, we knew this was the perfect ball to show that not only did every single country have it’s own baseball history, but then for the Caribbean Series--baseball was also a very unifying theme that brought all of these countries together to play baseball and compete against one another in the same way these great teams competed against each other within their respective countries. It starts off with everybody trying to beat Cuba because Cuba had the greatest team. Then after Fidel Castro, things changed a little bit and it became Puerto Rico and then the Dominican Republic--in more recent times."
"Venezuela loves it when they knock off the Domicans. And Puerto Rico is thrilled when they are up there as well. Mexico can barely believe they won the Caribbean Series this past year because they are more of a soccer playing country. All along their west coast and close to the United States, is where baseball is really played in Mexico. One of the cases in Latin America where there are places were baseball is the king instead of soccer."
Nats320: And this Viva Baseball display once the word gets around, you hope that will help attract more latino visitors to the Hall Of Fame? 
Odell: "We really hope so. To the extent that works out, that’s fantastic. A couple of things we thought about when we started to put together Viva Baseball. One was that regardless of how many people it brought here or not, it was a story that needed to be told because it’s an important baseball story. When we opened up Pride & Passion, we wondered whether we would get a larger number of African-Americans coming to see this. The answer ended up being no, not really. But it still needed to be told. And just because it didn’t affect our visitation demographic, that’s ok because this was an important story for all of America and for all of baseball. We are thrilled to be able to tell that story."

"The same thing is true for latin baseball. But one of the things that’s great is to walk through the floors as it starts to get a little more crowded and you will hear people walking and talking to one another and there is a whole lot of great interaction. And all of a sudden you go into Viva Baseball and everybody is talking spanish. We had no idea this was going to happen. We didn’t put out a questionaire asking what language would you prefer to speak? When we do demographic stuff we ask where you are coming from? What is your Zip Code? How did you hear about the Hall Of Fame? What are you financial demographics?  But you don’t ask what language do you prefer to speak?"
"But when people get up to Viva Baseball, then dad starts talking to the kids telling them about this exhibit in spanish. Let me tell you, that is really neat to hear inside this museum. You hear english, english, english on the 1st, 2nd and 3rd floors. But in that area, all of a sudden you hear spanish, spanish, spanish, spanish!! And that’s really, really cool. That was totally unexpected. We didn’t think that was going to happen." 
"To the extent we knew how many spanish speaking folks might be coming, we knew it from our spanish translations of our walkthrough maps (of the museum). We weren’t giving out too many of those. But we had a bigger spanish population than we knew. And they appreciate that story in ways they can’t tell us. Several latin reporters helped spread it around through the spanish speaking press down in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela and the spanish speaking blogesphere as well."

Nats320: "Can you talk a little more about obtaining artifacts and putting together the videos for displays?"

"The clubs are always very open and very happy to send up artifacts--which is great. The difficulty we've had is doing interviews with players when we wanted to. Mostly because a ballplayer's schedule is pretty rigid from the time they come into a city, to the time they are there, to the time they are leaving. And they want to keep it that way. When you start throwing curveballs in and start interviewing guys and it’s not the regular interviewer and they are not interested in talking about something off the field--that’s when they get uncomfortable."
"So it took us a while to get through and explain here’s what we would like to do. Using Viva Baseball as the example, we sent them the questions in English and Spanish. What turned out and it worked out well for us was being able to conduct the interview in English or Spanish or both--depending upon the ballplayer. For some of the ballplayers, like Rod Carew, we were able to answer in both English and Spanish. Sometimes with Juan Marichal you will see him speaking in English with Spanish subtitles. But also English subtitles for ADA. But sometimes he’s speaking Spanish with English translation and Spanish subtitles for ADA. So you never quite know what you are going to get."
"It was really neat how you ask a question in English and you get this length of a answer (widening his hands a little bit apart). And you ask them to tell the same story in Spanish and it’s twice as long. He’s now talking with his heart language. And you can see the wonder and greater detail in his eyes." 
"I got a chance to interview Rod Carew. He was amazing in talking about his story. How he came up to America from Panama to New York and he was just a little bit younger than a lot of the players that came up professionally with him. He came to America with his family, his mom, when he was still a teenager. A young teen who had to go to school and before he could go to school, before he could go out and play, he had to practice his English at home. And because of those lessons, he has no accent today." 
"Yet ballplayers that came as professional ballplayers at the age of 17 or 18--say three years older than Rod Carew--didn’t have somebody that said you have to stay at home and practice your English before you can go out and play baseball. They came here to play baseball. So that’s a part of the rich story of how these latino players came into American culture and how comfortable they are with the language. Or, not comfortable with the language." 
Nats320: "We wanted to follow up on the Stephen Strasburg Cap from his debut game we saw earlier in relation to why it’s important to the Baseball Hall Of Fame & Museum?"
John Odell: "Nobody knew that game was going to be as big as it was. However, Strasburg did have an unprecedented amount of publicity and pre-Major League coverage. It was clear that this was a phenomenon of some sort and our job is to tell baseball history as it is taking place. You don’t have time to look back and go: ‘Oh, you know 10 years ago we should have picked up that.’ We are constantly in a situation where we are always projecting where we would like to be. Always looking back 10 years saying to ourselves what would we want from this game or that moment? That’s how we came up with Strasburg. We got the cap because we wanted something that was not too big, something that was indicitive of the year. Ball caps change all the time. In a couple of years, The Nationals are going to come out with a blue bill on their cap. Or they are going to change something."

"And that’s the great thing about caps. They really set a time frame in the game. So this Strasburg Cap will set a time. ‘Oh yeah, we remember the classic red cap back in the old days!’ The ideal is that Strasburg has this incredible 20 year career, strikes out a bizzion guys, has 300 wins, and then six years later comes into the Hall Of Fame--and we got something from his debut. That would be ideal."
"But what also could happen is Strasburg doesn’t successfully complete his rehab from surgery and never plays again. Those are two situations where either one of those scenarios could take place. Yet the story of Strasburg coming into the majors is one that will never change because he really did have a remarkable debut. We were trying to think of this kind of a build up, the hype coming into the Major Leagues and we didn’t find anybody. So as it’s own phenomenon, what’s appropriate?  We start with the ball cap. If everything goes great then this will be the first thing we acquire. If it doesn’t, some other phenom is going to come along and we know we have the Strasburg Cap. Then the story becomes here’s what happened to Strasburg--not much. Or he continued and became like Sandy Koufax as one of the great immortals in the sport." 

"That’s one of the crazy things about this game. You never know but you are always, every year and every day, thinking what history is taking place today in baseball and do we want to collect an item from it? We do have some routines down. Somebody throws a no-hitter, we contact them about getting a cap, maybe some spikes, and a baseball from the game. It doesn’t have to be the last out, but a baseball that he threw in the game. If somebody hits four home runs in a game in one day, we try to get the bat from him. When Shawn Green accomplished the feat, he said: ‘No, I got more hits left in it.’ He hit three more home runs with it then broke the bat. And then he gave it to us. Perfect!! That’s great. He said his bat died a hero. That adds more to the story."

"For milestones and things that are unique--we have to sit back and think. The best way to do it is to think back to if the feat happened 10 to 15 years ago. What would we have wanted from the game then? Or project us into the year 2030--what would we want from that? It’s not easy, but we have to think ahead.'
"In Strasburg’s case, we asked for the cap. We contacted The Nationals and said this is what we would like. We got his debut cap and a baseball from that game. The answer is that we always contact the ballclubs and say this is what we would like. They then go to the ballplayer and say: ‘The Hall Of Fame would like this?’ Usually, the ballplayer is fine with it, but it depends on what it is. If you ask for a ballplayer's glove, you ain’t going to get it. It’s very seldom. Sometimes we’ve had luck with getting triple play gloves. The ballplayer will give up a glove they used during a triple play." 

"Troy Tulowitzki (Colorado) had his unassisted triple play and we asked if The Hall Of Fame could have that glove?  We have Randy Velarde’s unassisted triple play glove from a dozen years ago. Troy responded: ‘I am a rookie. This is what is keeping me in the Major Leagues. I will give you my cap and my jersey. I will give you my pants and I will give you my spikes, but I can’t give you my glove. It's got too much good mojo.’"
"We understand that. You don’t want to be getting into the head of any ballplayer. Mike Bordick of The Orioles had this incredible streak of errorless games at the end of a season. He donated the glove and then three games into the following season, booted a ball. And you felt bad for him. I don’t know how he works his gloves in and out of games, maybe donating his glove to the Hall was fine by him. But you would hate to feel that you are the reason anybody ends their record streak--like getting their bat before they are ready to give it up." 
In the next installment of our three part interview with John Odell--Curator at The National Baseball Hall Of Fame & Museum, Nats320 looks ahead to some exhibits currently in the planning stages that will go on display in Cooperstown over the next few years and we will finish off with John's look at American history through baseball. That's coming next on Nats320 followed by even more--including a photo essay of The Hank Aaron Permanent Exhibit then an interview with The Director Of Research at The Hall Of Fame--Tim Wiles.

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