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US Olympic and Paralympic Museum

Inside the United States Olympic & Paralympic Museum

This week sees the opening of the United States Olympic & Paralympic Museum, at the foot of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado Springs.

The accessible and high-tech US Olympic & Paralympic Museum (USOPM) measures 60,000 square feet.  It features inspirational personal stories, simulations, activities and artefacts, including the final scoreboard from the historic 1980 ‘Miracle on Ice,’ as well as medals and torches.

The building is designed by Diller, Scofidio + Renfro of New York in collaboration with Anderson Mason Dale Architects from Denver. Interdisciplinary design studio Gallagher & Associates (G&A) provided early feasibility and master planning, exhibit and experience design, and operations management and executive leadership via Gallagher Museum Services.

In the countdown to opening, Blooloop caught up with Carl Rhodes of G&A and Christopher Liedel, CEO of the USOPM.

Creating the US Olympic & Paralympic Museum

Carl Rhodes Gallagher & Associates
Carl Rhodes

Rhodes, the exhibit design lead for the museum, talked about the creative process. He also spoke about the impact of COVID-19 on that process.

“This is the first museum dedicated to the US Olympics and Paralympics effort,” he says. “It’s a national icon, and an opportunity to further enhance national identity.”

The new museum is created nearby to the Olympic training facilities in Colorado Springs. Starting in 2013, G&A’s strategic planning team worked with the City of Colorado Springs and the U.S. Olympic Committee to conceptualize a new destination to celebrate Team USA, also home to the U.S. Olympic Training Center. The new destination would be known as the City for Champions district.

“The idea is that we could use the museum and the training facilities together to enhance the brand of Colorado Springs as an Olympic destination.”

Architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R) came on board, Rhodes says, early in the process:

“We had some of the early scenes developing before there was a building design. Then DS+R came up with this stunning design. It is an iconic, dynamic shape, which alludes to the human body, to movement, motion and dynamism. We felt that now that the museum has such a strong exterior identity, there should be a lot of dynamism into the interior as well.

“The approach is so strong. We need the interior to live up to the build-up.”

A unique space

In terms of the organisation of the space within the US Olympic and Paralympic Museum, he says:

“It’s a unique building in how it’s organized. It has an open atrium in the centre. You journey to the top of the building, and then you spiral your way down through the galleries. There is a clear linear path with connecting ramps as you go down through the building.”

US Olympic Paralympic Museum
Bill Baum // U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum

“There are a lot of interesting moments where the building and the exhibits all work together and play off one another. We adapted many of our designs based on what the building itself was telling us. So, we had some of our early ideas, we had some of our larger goals, and then we were adapting based on some of the shapes that were happening within the space.”

Telling the Olympic and Paralympic story

The stories of Team USA Olympians and Paralympians are the lens through which visitors experience the commitment and purpose of competing at the highest level.

Describing the narrative progression, Rhodes says:

“We start with the ancient games and Olympic history. What does it mean to be an Olympian? What kind of dedication is involved in performing as an Olympic athlete? We explore the training schedule, the rigorous personal challenges and sacrifices that have to be made to perform at that level. Then we move into technology, and how the games have evolved since its introduction.”

One of the new exhibits
Introduction to the Games Gallery. Bill Baum // U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum

“Next, we get into the actual games. The opening ceremonies, the Parade of Nations, many of the outstanding performances since the restart of the games in the late 1800s and the medal ceremony. The museum looks at the Olympics as the centre of an international stage, and everything involved with that. From the most light-hearted moments to the more serious ones.”

The importance of accessibility

Focusing the attention of the US audience on the Paralympic games was, he says, a key goal:

“While the Paralympics has a big international following, it doesn’t have as much of a following in the US. Accessibility was a driving factor in all of our design decisions. As the experiences evolved, we made certain that every single activity and every single visitor experience is inclusive and can be universally accessed.”

“To do that, we also worked on an RFID proximity trigger system. This means that the experience will adapt and change based on your personal preferences. If you’ve asked for audio descriptions, visual enhancements, simplified visuals or larger text, that will automatically happen as you make your way through the exhibits.

“You don’t have to keep making individual adjustments on an activity by activity basis. That is, I think, unique. We have used RFID technology for other exhibits, but never quite in this way.”

A dynamic experience

Each gallery at the US Olympic and Paralympic Museum, he says, has its own aesthetic:

“We didn’t want a systematic approach where a single design aesthetic was experienced through the whole thing. There is a lot of evolution and changes as you go through the spaces. This makes it a more dynamic experience for visitors.”

The World Watches exhibit
The World Watches Gallery. Bill Baum // U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum

The focus on the athletes engages visitors emotionally:

“We have put the visitor face to face with the Team USA athletes themselves as often as possible. In the Athlete Training gallery, we created activities that allow visitors to try different Olympic and Paralympic sports. Many of these activities are being led by athletes who are currently in training as well.

“Later, in the galleries, we revisit Olympians and their thoughts as they look at their past achievements. There is an acknowledgement of all the previous generations and achievements, as well as the upcoming Olympic talents.”

Technology at the US Olympic and Paralympic Museum

Construction USOPM

Technology makes the experience immersive and interactive:

“Some of the more history-based galleries have straightforward video or interactive screens,” says Rhodes. Others are physical activities where you’re engaging with an archery bow or ski poles to give an insight into the experience for the athlete.”

“I don’t want to give away everything we’re doing. But there is content with transparent OLEDs and motion-tracking. Each gallery has a unique way of engaging visitors.

“The linear films are phenomenal. We’ve worked with our media partners Centre Screen in London. They’ve done a wonderful job.”

The US Olympic and Paralympic Museum and COVID-19

The pandemic had a major impact on the plans for opening.

Rhodes says: “That was a big one. Everything that makes the museum so interesting also made it extremely challenging to open in the middle of all this.

“Everyone wants to know that it’s safe to visit a destination right now. We couldn’t say that unless we had done everything in our power to make that statement true.

“Museums are opportunities for collective experiences as well as personal ones. We had to look at each of those individually. For communal experiences, how could we maintain certain social distancing requirements? How does that affect our capacity and our throughput?

Museums are opportunities for collective experiences as well as personal ones

“Then we have more personal experiences which vary through the galleries. Some are motion tracking; we didn’t really have to make any adjustments to those.

“Others are, by design, very hands-on, very tactile. We had to look at those in two different ways. For the digital displays, you’re going to be provided with a museum-branded stylus. So you’re not touching the screen. And for the elements that encourage you to touch them, we designed – very late in the game – custom sanitation stations.”

Adapting to the new normal

“We didn’t want to eliminate those activities. We wanted to ensure those that wanted to engage with them could do so safely.

“Visually, we had a certain cohesive design that we were trying to maintain. We had to introduce these new elements without letting them become a visual disruption. It was important to give them a brand identity consistent with the rest of the galleries, the building and the identity of the museum.

“A lot was happening. We were trying to finish the exhibit experiences when all this happened. Then we had this extra layer of complexity on top of everything else.”

Paralympics at USOPM

The COVID crisis, Rhodes says, will affect elements of design in the future:

“It is going to affect certain choices of how a design solution is addressed. It is going to take some time before people feel truly comfortable with certain types of experiences.

“We’re extremely excited about this project. It’s been a long time in the planning, and we’re thrilled to see it coming to completion. We hope that everyone feels comfortable enough to come and engage with it. I think they’ll be pleased if they do.”

Christopher Liedel and the US Olympic and Paralympic Museum

Christopher Liedel is the CEO of the Olympic and Paralympic Museum. He previously served for nearly six years as president of Smithsonian Enterprises, the revenue-producing arm of the Smithsonian Institution.

Before that, he was with National Geographic for 16 years, becoming the executive vice president and chief financial officer. Reflecting on his appointment, he says:

“When I was being recruited, they were looking for an individual with three types of experience. One was international experience. The second was museum experience, and then the last was Olympic sports experience.

“I spent about 16 years at National Geographic. From strategic planning to being the executive vice president and chief financial officer. I helped to finance the worldwide expansion of our cable channel.

“In 2012, I went to help the US government agency that oversees the Smithsonian Enterprise, our museum network here in the United States.

“One of the fun things we did was to look at the book by the Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, exploring humanity’s history through 100 objects [A History of the World in 100 Objects, by Dr Neil MacGregor.] Being truly American, we had to come up with a book that was 101 Objects that made America. My favourite was at number 82: Bob Dylan and his music.

“The last criterion was Olympic sports experience. I spent a long time working in the United States Golf Association. And I currently sit on the board of the PGA. In 2016, with golf becoming an Olympic sport again, I had the three criteria.”

The vision for a new museum

The original vision for the museum came, Liedel says, from the chairman of the U.S. Olympic Museum board, Dick Celeste:

“He was governor of Ohio and then ambassador for the United States to India. He envisioned that we could be home to a world-class museum. Looking at what it takes for an athlete to go that extra mile, to shave off that extra tenth or hundredth of a second. It was a great concept.”

Parade of Nations Olympic Museum
The Lab gallery and intro panel to the Parade of Nations gallery. Bill Baum // U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum

Colorado Springs is the perfect location for such a museum:

“Colorado Springs is the home of the United States Olympic and Paralympic committee. We have a flagship training centre here. About half of the national governing body for sport are based here in Colorado Springs. In 2013, we became a sister city to Ancient Olympia, where Mt Olympus is. The last thing is we’ve had the rights from the IOC to brand ourselves as Olympic City USA.”

More than a sports museum

The idea was that this would be more than a museum of sports:

“We wanted it to be a history museum, a science museum, an art museum, even a cultural museum,” says Liedel.

“There was this blueprint of what we needed to do. We likened it to a wonderful string quartet. But how could we set about turning the museum into a 72-piece symphony? What we have looked at is how each gallery can serve the interests and needs of people that may love sports, or music, or the arts, weaving in the different elements.”

Atrium USOPM

“So much of Olympics and Paralympics are captured in photographs and video. How do you bring that element alive where you’re not just a museum of photographs and videos? We concentrated on the right blend of digital media as well as artefacts. It’s an enriched experience.”

Putting the athletes at the forefront

Liedel had the opportunity to be involved in the project early on:

“They already had a detailed sketch, rather than a blueprint, of what they wanted to do. We turned it into a blueprint, focusing on those different elements, on looking at our audiences, and on our internal aspirational goal. That goal became that we wanted to be able to help individuals fuel and re-envision their passion for how to be their own personal best, using life stories of athletes.”

Interactives at US Olympic and Paralympic Museum
Athlete Training Gallery. Bill Baum // U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum

“By putting the athletes first, we were able to create this wonderful narrative arc. One that lets us tell those human adventures.

“We had ambitions to make sure that if a family member of any one of the 12,174 Olympic or Paralympic athletes that competed would show up, they could find them.

“Less than 7% of our American athletes ever stand up on that podium. So we de-stressed the emphasis on winning the medal. Instead, we focused it on the human journey of getting there and what it took.”

US Olympic and Paralympic Museum aims to inspire

It is a museum of aspiration: “We want kids to be able to see themselves in the museum,” says Liedel. “We want them to see somebody that looks like them, that grew up like them, whether that was in a suburb, a rural or urban area; with a background they can relate to, whether that means parents who are athletes or parents who don’t know about sport.”

One exhibit is a cutting-edge interactive map.

“The wonderful thing about that map is they’re able to even to go in and find their hometown. They can see if there was an athlete that grew up close to them. It creates that point of personal connection.”

Ice ramp US Olympic Paralympic Museum

“There was a recent study showing that if kids have a high expectation – which we refer to as hope – that they want to go to college, do well and get a professional career, or if they have high aspirations – which we call dreams – that they want to be president or an astronaut or an Olympian; they are four times more likely to go to college than not. And if they have both, they’re 20 times more likely.

“Our goal is to help kids identify aspirations for themselves, or identify higher expectations. We have developed an education program to help them. Again, the whole goal is to be able to create an environment that is unique.”

Social progress

The museum also touches on advances in social progress in sport. Liedel talks about an incident from the 1928 Antwerp games:

“In the 800 metres race, a larger European woman [Lina Radke of Germany] was running against a slighter, smaller Asian athlete [Hitomi Kinue of Japan.] It was when photo-finish was first being perfected at the Olympics. They crossed the finish line at almost the same time.

“It was the most exciting and close race. Yet the decision came, after that race, that 800 meters was too far for women to run. It was nearly 40 years before it came back.”

Visitors at USOPM

Radke won the gold medal, in the end, having completed the race in 2 minutes, 16 and 4/5 seconds. This was seven seconds faster than the previous world record, which she also held. The press focused less on this and more on the fact that many women finished the race in a state of near-collapse.

In Amsterdam, reporter Knute Rockne wrote: ‘It was not a very edifying spectacle to see a group of fine girls running themselves into a state of exhaustion.’

“It’s not always a positive progression, in terms of equality,” Liedel says: “There have been fits and starts. We like to let people understand, and to champion the social progress that needs to occur, so society can grow.”

An inclusive museum

The museum’s focus on the Paralympics is reflected in its inclusive, fully accessible design. “About six months into my role we made a push to change our name, to be the Olympic and Paralympic Museum,” says Liedel.

Showing a commitment to Paralympic inclusion, the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) is now the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC).

“There are four countries that govern both the Olympic and Paralympics, combining them at the national level. These are the United States, South Africa, the Netherlands and Norway. There was a huge benefit to us embracing that. It was really London post -2012 games that created this unique environment to celebrate the Paralympians as athletes.”

Behind the scenes USOPM Gallagher
Behind the scenes during construction

“In the United States, we have 21 million people that have a disability. If they were good at a sport, each of them could possibly qualify for the Paralympics. It isn’t a small group of people that are living with a permanent disability; around the world, it’s about 12-15% of people. We became interested in the stories of those athletes.”

Making the museum accessible to everyone was an important part of its commitment.

“It was all about Paralympics experience. And we’ve been very fortunate that the athletes, both Paralympic and Olympic have been involved in the design of the building, the content, all of this. We subscribe to the concept of the athlete first. And they’ve been really helpful in creating an authentic experience.”

Navigating coronavirus

Commenting on the pandemic, Liedel says:

“We never expected COVID-19 to happen. I don’t think anybody did. But because of the RFID technology, and the fact that we created strategies for people with touch impairments, it has allowed us to pivot and be able to open up in an environment where we can control the flow of people into a gallery.

“We have a narrative arc where you move from one gallery to the next. This lends itself perfectly to timed ticketing, regulating the flow of people through the spaces.”

Social Distance US Olympic Paralympic Museum

“Everything that we put in place in our early plans of movement through the museum has helped us be at the forefront on how to think about ways people gather in a post COVID world.

“What we have learned from the Paralympic athletes is how to find a way to overcome this impairment in living as a community; and how to rise above it.

“Working with them through our development of the museum has helped our management team assess what has been imposed upon us, and strategize ways of rising above it.”

Background image: Bill Baum // U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum

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Lalla Merlin

Lead Features Writer Lalla studied English at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford University. A writer and film-maker, she lives in rural Devon with husband, children, and an assortment of badly-behaved animals, including an enormous but friendly wolf.

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