Monday, July 26, 2010

Museum Review: Centennial Olympics Exhibition

Centennial Olympics Exhibition
At the Atlanta History Museum
Atlanta, Georgia
Recommendation: 2 stars (out of 5)

I admit I’m sentimental for Atlanta. I lived there for the ten years leading up to the Olympics and watched the city transform from a wanna-be world-class city to one that truly embodies it. One of the most significant transformations I witnessed was the transformation of all of the major cultural institutions in the city during those years. As it had done in Los Angeles, the Olympics prompted and funded rebuilding of each major museum in the city, including the Atlanta History Center.

Even in its limited original facility, I liked the Atlanta History Center, because it told the history of the city and helped me understand the intense civic pride that guides and pushes Atlanta, the lingering effect of the Civil War, and the complex role of race and ethnicity in building the city. When the Center moved into its new building about two years before the Olympics, its permanent exhibits included a comprehensive exhibit on the development of Atlanta, which represented not only the different periods in the history of the city, but also how that history was seen from many perspectives—black and white, rich and poor, immigrant and native. One could feel the excitement of the city and, at the same time, recognize that circumstances of ethnicity, race, and class would channel expectations arising from that enthusiasm.

Its Battle of Atlanta exhibit (opened after the Olympics) is one of the most thorough and sobering exhibits on the Civil War that I sought. Although it attempts to present the war from a Southern perspective, it acknowledges the many viewpoints on the war, presents the difficult experience of serving on both sides, and the aftermath. Telling this story is one of the most extensive collections of authentic Civil War-era objects that I’ve seen.

In the past couple of years, the museum expanded to include the collection of the permanent exhibit of the Centennial Olympic Games, which had been housed in Underground Atlanta until the decision was made to move them to the History Center (as a decision was made to close a satellite History museum in that complex a decade ago, for a lack of visitors).

On a personal level, I was disappointed that the exhibit had moved. Underground was supposed to be the one of the central venues for the public during the Olympics (it’s between several of the athletic venues), and I always thought that the presence of cultural institutions in the center adds reasons to go there. But few people were going there, so I guess the only choice was to move the museum to Buckhead, where it would attract more visitors.

The exhibition itself was also a disappointment. On the one hand, it provides a lot of good background information about the history of the Olympic games, with a small section of the exhibit providing a quick summary of each set of games—including the years when the games were cancelled in World War I and II, and when participation was limited during the 1980 and 1984 games. One of the highlights was examples of official symbols and torches from many of these games. Even this section could have benefited from more of a background on the Olympic movement.

But the biggest disappointment was in the description of the games themselves. In terms of presentation, the designers took the approach of a timeline on a wall, which focused more on a play-by-play of the events leading up to the games as well as a daily report on the games themselves (including daily reports of the games, along with related memorabilia).

In doing so, the exhibit glosses over some of the true highlights and low-lights of the experience. In terms of the highlights, that Atlanta—a first-time applicant—earned the games when Athens was favored to get them is still shocking. That could have been explored further. One of the most exciting parts of the Olympics was their effect on the psyche of Atlanta, including the spirit of volunteerism in the Atlanta community (not the games) it engendered, both through formal efforts like the Carter project and informal ones. The volunteerism is mentioned, its effect isn’t.

Similarly, the difficulties during the games receive only limited coverage, especially the bombing. That was a serious problem, and deserves more coverage, even though it’s not one of the more pleasant sides of the event.

Most significantly, the exhibit nearly ignores the lasting effect of the Olympics on the city. Development in areas where the Olympics occurred sped up afterwards, resulting in total transformations of downtown, Midtown, Buckhead, and the Perimeter area, as well as the cultural institutions in the area.

I left feeling like the exhibit—which had the objects to provide a compelling and positive view of the Olympics—was more of an ode to the boosterism that got Atlanta the Olympics, rather than an exploration of the impact of that boosterism, which would have made for a more compelling exhibit—and one that would have integrated more effectively with others in the museum.

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