By BRUCE SCHREINER
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — At first glance, a new museum exhibit in Kentucky seems to be an assortment of ordinary stuff: a hammer, shoes, scientific instruments. On closer inspection, these unassuming items achieved the extraordinary.
The collection at Western Kentucky University features more than 140 common items used by luminaries in entertainment, politics, art, literature, sports and science.
There’s equipment used by explorer Robert Ballard, who discovered the wreck of the Titanic; a film splicer from documentarian Ken Burns’ editing room and dance shoes worn by Liza Minnelli in a Tony Award-winning performance.
Other items include a hammer used by former President Jimmy Carter to build Habitat for Humanity houses, Jay Leno’s desk microphone for several years on “The Tonight Show” and lab equipment used by Nobel Prize-winning scientists.
It’s a mish-mash of “ordinary tools that helped define a nation’s greatness,” WKU President Gary Ransdell said.
The permanent exhibit, called the “Instruments of American Excellence Collection” — opens Sept. 21 at the Kentucky Museum on Western’s campus in Bowling Green.
The collection is the brainchild of Dan Murph, a country songwriter who lives near the WKU campus and in Nashville, Tenn.
Murph, the collection chairman, hopes the exhibit inspires visitors to pursue their own lofty ambitions.
“If the collection causes just one person to re-evaluate their career path or dream bigger or come up with a new idea or dare to try something they always wanted to try, then the collection is a total success,” he said.
Murph approached Ransdell nearly two years ago with his idea for the exhibit. Soon, a small group of students and administrators was working with Murph on compiling a list of noteworthy people to contact for donated items to build the collection.
It didn’t take long: Sculptor Raymond Kaskey sent an old wooden mallet used in some of his award-winning work. Then came another big catch — equipment used by Ballard, the famed underwater explorer, to help connect his command center with deep sea robots.
“That’s the first item where we looked at each other and realized, ‘OK this can work, this is possible,’” Murph said.
The response rate would be the envy of any solicitor. About three-quarters of those contacted have contributed, Ransdell said. The university spent about $125,000 to renovate and prepare the exhibit space.
Items range from scholarly to whimsical.
There’s a bound copy of the U.S. Constitution that now-retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor kept in her chambers and lab tools used by Roger D. Kornberg, who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry.
There are clown props from Hunter “Patch” Adams, a doctor and social activist who was portrayed in a movie by Robin Williams.
There’s a studio microphone used by Sam Phillips to record the early hits of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis at Sun Studio in Memphis, Tenn. There’s a fiddle from Charlie Daniels, a customized baton from Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart and ballet shoes worn by acclaimed ballerina Sara Mearns.
There’s a racket from tennis great Chris Evert, a skateboard from Tony Hawk, a soccer shoe from Mia Hamm and a golf club from Jack Nicklaus.
Murph’s favorite item, though, is from someone who’s not a household name.
It’s an old pair of tennis shoes worn by award-winning teacher Rafe Esquith, known for getting extraordinary academic results from students at an inner-city school. Esquith said he believes teachers should always be on their feet tending to students.
“That kind of gave me goosebumps,” Murph said.
Carter’s hammer looks like “it’s driven in 10,000 nails,” Murph said.
“It changed what is expected of presidents once they leave office,” he said. “They are no longer allowed to sit down and write their memoirs until the day they die. They are expected to get off the couch now and make a difference in the world.”
The items signify the hard work that went into their endeavors.
“Sometimes greatness can be achieved with the simplest of instruments or tools, if you’ve got the mind, the heart and the spirit to put those tools to work,” Ransdell said.
WKU Instruments of American Excellence: http://www.wku.edu/iae/