Super Bowl of Sports Museums

When we caught up with Steve Perry this week, the president and executive director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame already was on the road to Indianapolis heading to this Sunday’s Super Bowl showdown between the New England Patriots and the New York Giants.

Since we know from experience that Ohio’s state troopers are an extremely vigilant bunch, we’ll assume Mr. Perry was in the passenger’s seat as he generously spent a few minutes giving us an update of an ongoing expansion project at football’s greatest shrine in Canton, OH.

A $27-million renovation that began last year is well underway in Canton and will be completed in time for the Hall of Fame’s 50th anniversary in 2013. In fact, the lion’s share of the expansion–known as the Future 50 Project–will be ready for viewing at this summer’s enshrinement ceremony for the Hall’s newest members, whose selection will be announced on Saturday.

The Future 50 Project will grow the HOF from 85,000 to 118,000 square feet. A major part of the expansion is a new 10,800-square-foot Pro Football Research and Preservation Center, which will provide better access for football fans and historians to the HOF’s huge repository of memorabilia. Additionally, 38,000-square-feet of existing gallery space will be renovated, including a new grand entrance, lobby and visitor orientation theater.

The renovation not only will greatly improve the visitor experience at the HOF–it also will upgrade the environment that protects the museum’s priceless collection of football artifacts.

A new state-of-the-art, museum-quality environmental system is being installed to provide the precisely monitored temperature and humidity controls needed throughout the facility to ensure long-term preservation of the sport shrine’s collection. The main entrance to the HOF also is being relocated to the center of the museum complex as part of an effort to minimize the infiltration of outside air; vapor barriers are being installed in the rotunda and exhibition galleries. The new entrance will feature a two-story atrium that will dramatically welcome HOF visitors to the museum.

Since we’re used to watching NFL warriors grapple in hard plastic helmets and polyester uniforms that are not likely to decay anytime soon, we asked Perry to explain why the sophisticated air and temperature controls are needed at the Hall of Fame.

“We have over 20 million pages of historical documents that are sensitive to moisture. This includes the minutes of the meeting when the NFL was founded in 1920 and the documents from the merger of the NFL and the AFL in 1970,” he told us. “But even things like footballs are sensitive to the air. Over time they can become brittle and break. We also have a collection of old leather helmets that can be subject to that kind of deterioration.”

Acutely aware that an up-and-coming generation of football fans weaned on Madden ’12 and other video games will expect sophisticated interactive displays at the museum, Perry confirms the HOF also is stepping up its visuals and audibles as well as its ground game.

“In our Super Bowl Gallery, you can interact with the display and pull up a graphic of who was in the starting lineup for each of the games and then push a button for video highlights of their best plays,” he says. The HOF video archive includes most of the NFL’s film collection as well as vintage footage from memorable contests of yesteryear.

Cleveland Browns fans, for example, can pull up footage of the team’s first season as a charter member of the All-American Football Conference (AAFC) in 1946. They also can chart the 1950 merger which brought the Browns, the San Francisco 49ers and the Colts (then in Baltimore) from the AAFC into the NFL. Cleveland fans can cap off their walk down memory lane by watching films of the Browns’ three consecutive appearances in the NFL’s championship games in the early 1950s.

They will discover that Cleveland lost heartbreakers in the 1952 and 1953 title matches, but the third time was the charm. The Browns broke through in 1954 and thrashed Detroit 56-10 in what many football buffs consider the most entertaining contest in NFL history, matching up two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks, Detroit’s Bobby Layne and Cleveland’s Otto Graham. Graham threw for three touchdowns and ran for three more, while the Browns’ defense intercepted Layne six times and forced three fumbles.

“If you want to see footage from the Browns’ championship game in 1954, we’ve got it,” Perry says.

The HOF expansion will accommodate a growing number of Hall of Fame guests. In its best years, the football shrine in Ohio has been host to nearly 300,000 annual visitors. The place usually is packed for the HOF’s annual Enshrinement Festival in August, when newly elected members formally achieve football immortality in Canton. Of the 267 players that have been elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, 154 are still living. Perry notes that most of them show up for the annual enshrinement ceremony.

“We’ve had as many as 130 Hall of Famers at the ceremony, which is the highest turnout of any sport,” the HOF president says with pride.

The renovated HOF will be opened in two phases. In August of this year, a grand opening will be held for the new Ralph Wilson, Jr. Pro Football Research and Preservation Center, named for the long-time Buffalo Bills owner,

Later this year, renovation of the exhibition galleries in the HOF’s main rotunda will begin. The Hall of Fame’s original iconic football-shaped rotunda and adjacent exhibition space was constructed in 1963. The current exhibit, entitled “The First 100 Years of Pro Football,” will be replaced with a series of exhibits including special sections honoring “dynasty” teams and past NFL commissioners. Another new display in the rotunda will be called “The Road to Equality in the NFL”, which will chronicle the racial integration of the league that took place in 1946, a year before Jackie Robinson became Major League Baseball’s first African-American player.

A grand opening for the new rotunda will take place in August 2013, marking the completion of the entire Future 50 Project as well as the 50th anniversary of the HOF. “The completion of this project will solidify the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s position as America’s premier sports museum and showplace,” Perry declares.

Other improvements being made in the two-year renovation include:

— New indoor and outdoor event spaces, including an expansion of the surrounding campus and parking facilities to provide additional space for Hall of Fame special events like the Enshrinement Festival and rentals for private events.

— Expanded museum retail store space; existing space allocated to the museum store will grow from 4,000 to 6,000 square feet to accommodate a better layout of merchandise and to better serve customers.

— New administration office space, which will accommodate the offices and administrative meeting spaces displaced by the new visitor orientation theater and expanded exhibit space.

The contractor overseeing the project is Westlake, Reed, Leskosky (WRL), an integrated architecture, engineering and technology design firm founded in Cleveland. Gallagher & Associates, one of the top exhibit design firms in the country, is serving as the project’s exhibit and visitor-experience designer. Gallagher has worked with WRL on a number of successful museum projects and recently completed the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Lamar Hunt Super Bowl Gallery. Olivieri and Welty, two Northeast Ohio contractors, partnered to serve as the project’s construction manager.

As the GPS device in Perry’s car alerted him that he was approaching the venue for Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis, we couldn’t resist asking him to give us his pick for the big game.

As you would expect from the man who has the primary responsibility for preserving the integrity and memory of America’s game, the executive director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame did not dodge the question and gave us an honest assessment of which way he is leaning.

“If I use my brain I would say the New England Patriots, but if I use my heart I would say the New York Giants,” he said.

Our journalistic standards require us to be neutral in predicting the outcome of Sunday’s contest. But we note that our office is just a stone’s throw from MetLife Stadium, home of the team known in these parts as Big Blue. We’d say more, but if we don’t hurry off to start pulling together our Super Bowl chili, it won’t be ready for the halftime show.

Enjoy the game, everyone!