1996 All Over Again

(ATR) Every day celebrates the Centennial Olympics at the Atlanta History Center... 

(ATR) A new exhibition at the Atlanta History Center about the 1996 Olympic and Paralympic Games focuses more on context than competition.

"Atlanta ’96: Shaping an Olympic and Paralympic City" explores how the city got the Games and how the two gigantic international events subsequently affected the area. Visitors then have a chance to weigh in on how they want to change their own communities.

The 2,600-square foot exhibition opened September 18 on the 30th anniversary of the decision by the International Olympic Committee to choose up-and-coming Atlanta over the sentimental favorite, Athens, Greece. A copy of the Atlanta Journal newspaper with the famous "It’s Atlanta!" headline is among the 150 or so objects. There are also more than 200 photographs and archival reproductions and historic footage of sports and cultural events.

Fittingly, the displays are located in the Payne Gallery, named after Billy Payne, the Atlanta Olympics chief whose dream became a reality. Payne is a major donor to the Atlanta History Center.

This is a "signature" exhibition, meaning it is not a temporary show and is expected to last at least as long as the previous Olympic exhibition, which ran from 2006 to 2016.

Sarah Dylla, Olympic and Paralympic Exhibition Curator, told Around the Rings that it was time to take a new look at the transformative events.

"Interpretations evolve with time and as we get further away from the Games, the perspective changed a bit," she said, "How we wanted to talk about it and how historians talk about it is different now."

The exhibition was supposed to open in July in conjunction with the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. But Covid-19 not only forced the postponement of the Olympics, it also made it difficult to finish building the displays, especially with plexiglass in short supply.

Interactive displays are increasingly important in museums, and the Atlanta History Center installed new technology that allows visitors to control the touch screen with palm gestures in the air instead of actually using their fingertips.

Face coverings are required and there is timed ticketing to space out the guests, who pay a top price of $21.50 for adults.

While the center’s collection of summer Olympic torches and participation medals were a popular part of the former exhibit, only a smattering are on display now in a hallway outside the gallery.

Dylla calls torches and medals "shiny objects of an Olympic Games. People see them and get a warm fuzzy feeling if they’re Olympic fans, but our collection is much more than that. Instead of ‘Hall of Fame’ style, we wanted this to be more about the city, thinking about why the city is the way it is and how it fits into this big network of global cities."

Here,visitors see a dual timeline of the history of the modern Olympic Games, which began in 1896, in conjunction with events occurring in Atlanta. For example, two years after the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the Atlanta Crackers -- a minor-league white baseball team playing at Ponce de Leon Park -- won the Southern Association and Dixie Series titles. The Atlanta Black Crackers won the Negro American League’s second-half pennant.

Inside the gallery, four themes are divided into zones: Envisioning, Campaigning, Realizing and Reflecting.

Through both audio and visual stories, stakeholders explain how they used the spotlight of the Games to promote other goals, such as changing the Georgia state flag and pushing to increase the importance of the Paralympic Games.

The controversy around the construction of the Olympic Stadium in the Summerhill neighborhood has a dedicated display that discusses race, class and the impact of urban renewal on vulnerable communities.

An Info ’96 terminal reminds Olympic spectators of the new technology at the Games, which were the first to have an official website.

A human-sized stuffed Izzy mascot is in a case, while Blaze is much smaller.

Once the exhibition moves into Games-time, a whole wall is covered by a five-panel mural that has a relief of the world map. It was hung at the Olympic Village next to buckets of paint and athletes added their own artistic touches. Look for Izzy swimming with the fishes and a risqué mermaid.

The placard which led the Tajikistan team into the Opening Ceremony is on the wall above a video terminal showing highlights of the Games, including Muhammad Ali lighting the cauldron, thrilling moments on the field of play and Cultural Olympiad performances.

Compared to the former exhibition, which had displays mounted along a running track and let visitors stand on an Olympic victory podium, this one is lighter on equipment, artifacts and souvenirs from the Games experience. However, it does have a greater emphasis on the Paralympic Games.

Of course, there is a full set of gold, silver and bronze Olympic and Paralympic medals from the 1996 Atlanta Games. But instead of showcasing Michael Johnson’s storied gold shoes produced especially for the Games, he donated the purple spikes he wore at the Olympic Trials. They share a case with a prosthetic used by Jeffrey MacMunn of Team USA in sitting and standing volleyball Paralympic events and a water polo ball that evokes the tensions that led to the breakup of Yugoslavia.

To spotlight the "Summer of Women," artifacts include an autographed softball, basketball and beach volleyball, plus gymnastics shoes donated by Lilia Podkopayeva of Ukraine. All are mounted on a section of the basketball court next to a lab bag for gender verification, symbolizing the last time all women athletes were subjected to chromosome testing.

A section on the tragic bombing in Centennial Olympic Park is across the passageway, meaning people who look at the competition artifacts have their back to the bombing and vice versa.

The exhibit closes with an interactive display in which people can choose priorities such as better transportation or more green space to create their ideal future city.

Written and reported by Karen Rosen

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