Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Of Ali, Frazier and Slugger: Quick Hits on Three Museums Visited in Louisville

Over the past 20 years, I have made a regular habit of road-tripping to cities within a 6-hour radius of Chicago.

Because I know that you are desperately curious, these destinations—many visited numerous times—have included:

Illinois: Champaign-Urbana, DeKalb, Springfield, Rockford, Galena, Moline
Indiana: Indianapolis, Fairmount, Columbus, South Bend, Goshen
Wisconsin: Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Fond du Lac, Appleton,
Iowa: Dubuque, Dyersville, Davenport
Missouri: St. Louis, Fulton, Hannibal, also Kansas City, though it’s a bit longer of a drive
Ohio: Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Toledo, Canton
Michigan: Detroit, Grand Rapids, Keweenaw Peninsula (a bit longer)
Minnesota: Minneapolis, St. Paul, Rochester

The only city I have been to in Kentucky—other than perhaps for a cheap motel in a Cincinnati suburb—is Louisville, where I visited once again this past weekend.

My impetus for the 315-mile trip, as it has been for jaunts to five other cities cited above (plus further away destinations) was a concert by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.

Generally speaking, my road trips revolve around any or all of the following: concerts (by Springsteen or someone else), baseball (I’ve been to 13 major or minor league stadiums in the cities above, plus the Field of Dreams), theater, museums (mainly art, but not only) and distinctive architecture (often by Frank Lloyd Wright).

As it was this time, a live event (concert, game, theater) is typically the motivating factor for any trip, and I supplement my time by going to museums and similar attractions. However, the last time I was in Louisville, in March 2006, I was prompted by the then relatively new Muhammad Ali Center, though I did also go to the Actors Theatre to see something within the Humana Festival of American Plays.

This weekend's visit was either my third or fourth trip to Louisville, and I was only in town from about 2pm on Saturday to about 3pm on Sunday. Subtract the time devoted to the concert—which I reviewed separately—and 9 hours at the Motel 6 across the river in Jeffersonville, and I really only spent about 10 waking hours sightseeing in Louisville.

So this is by no means a comprehensive travelogue, just a recap of what I saw. Although, there are only a few other Louisville attractions that interest me, and I’ve been to them before. Likewise, I’ll been to these three places before as well, but enjoyed them enough to opt for a return visit:

Muhammad Ali Center - Probably most imaginative in its exterior design, with seemingly abstract panels that coalesce into images of Ali (look at the photo at left from about 5 feet away), this museum provides a good overview of the champ’s life, if not quite the greatest.

There is a fine introductory film and various displays provide information on Ali’s youth, career, religious convictions, refusal to enter the U.S. army (for which he was forced to give up his title) and battle with Parkinson's disease. The best parts are actual movies of Ali, showing him either fighting or talking. The museum is worth a visit, especially given its reasonable $9 admission (AAA discount offered) but I was hoping there would have been a bit more in the way of updates since 2006.

An exhibit on “Americans Who Tell the Truth” was nice, but consisted simply of paintings, with quotes, of Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Cesar Chavez and about 30 others. I would have liked to have seen a special display about Joe Frazier, so closely connected with Ali and who passed earlier this year. Ali Center Website

Frazier History Museum (featuring an exhibit on Princess Diana) - Ironically, after the Ali, the Frazier was the next museum I visited, albeit the next day. Named for its philanthropist founder, not Smokin’ Joe, the museum was previously known as the Frazier Historical Arms Museum and still displays an impressive collection of wartime relics and life-size models commemorating various conflicts. Now known as the Frazier History Museum, it has supposedly widened its purview and is currently hosting a special exhibit on Princess Diana, organized by her family and estate.

The highlights of the exhibit—including her wedding dress (with full train), 28 of her dresses including many rather iconic ones, a couple of tiaras, home movies from her childhood and various possessions—made seeing it worthwhile, though I felt it could have provided a bit fuller glimpse into Lady Di. Basically, in order of display, the exhibit covered Diana’s childhood, wedding, funeral, charity work and dresses. There was almost nothing about, or from, her tenure as princess and almost no mention of Prince Charles other than regarding the courtship and wedding. I felt one additional gallery, perhaps with a timeline and some additional artifacts, would have been in order, but nonetheless saw things—like the wedding dress—that I likely never will again. Frazier Museum Website

Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory Tour - Being the baseball fan that I am, this is a must-visit every time I’m in Louisville, and it has changed somewhat since 2006, but like the two museums above, would get @@@@ from me, not @@@@@. The factory tour, showing how bats are made, is the best part, but you really don’t learn all that much. Likewise, there are some nice permanent displays about various baseball legends, but nothing all that scintillating. The Crack of the Bat film, narrated by James Earl Jones, is enjoyable but could use an update. And I imagine the special exhibit on “Baseball Hotties” is supposed to bring in the women visit the Diana exhibit at the Frazier across the street, but while harmless, it’s pretty slight. I would like to see the Museum have exhibits—and to be fair, perhaps they do—that highlight, one at a time, the greats who have used Louisville Slugger bats. To get in-depth insights about Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, Johnny Bench and others would be considerably better than “Hotties.” I should mention that you can order personalized bats; I have one from years ago with my name engraved, but could now get one with my actual signature if I chose to pony up $54.95. Slugger Museum Website

While each of these museums made good use of 2 hours and adequately filled out a weekend trip to Louisville, I’m not sure that any of them alone are worth the trip. Besides them, on past trips I’ve visited:

Churchill Downs / Kentucky Derby Museum
- I’ve never been to the Kentucky Derby nor any races held at Churchill Downs, but have visited the famed track and its nearby museum, at least twice. The museum conducts a nice tour of the racetrack. I didn’t feel the need to go on this visit, but I’d recommend it to a first-time visitor to Louisville. Derby Museum website

Speed Art Museum / University of Louisville – I visited the Speed in 2006 and recall it having a decent collection; however, it is undergoing a vast expansion through 2015 and is currently closed for construction. There is a cast of Rodin’s Thinker at the entrance of the University.

While I've never been inside, the Kentucky Science Center in downtown Louisville looks like it could be good fun for families. 

As mentioned above, the Actors Theatre is known for doing great work, so if you’re there at the right time you might want to catch a play.

And perhaps do your homework a bit better than me in order to properly explore Old Louisville. I had read that this district contained a wealth or architectural treasures, including many Victorian homes, but in driving around it, other than a few impressive churches, I didn’t see much to turn my head.

All in all, I enjoyed my time in Louisville, but if it wasn’t for more than 3 great hours by Springsteen, I’m not sure the trip would have been worth the drive to and from Chicago, but if nothing else, a one day jaunt to Louisville could be worth tacking onto a trip to Indianapolis, as the cities are less than 2 hours apart. Or you’ll now know how to fill up your time if you ever happen to go down to the Derby.

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