A new museum dedicated to sports legend Jackie Robinson goes beyond that

Jackie Robinson’s one-sentence life story is well known. As a baseball player in 1947, he was the first black person to play in Major League Baseball, transforming America’s national pastime and accelerating the civil rights movement. This one-sentence resume is great; Few sports figures have played such a major role in history.

But Robinson was more than an important achievement as it was. A new museum dedicated to his life on and off the field aims to tell a more complete story of a person who excelled in business, media, and activism, as well as his sporting accomplishments. The museum’s creators and designers want visitors to learn this broader story while also building on the social progress Robinson made during his lifetime.

Jackie Robinson Museum, which has now opened in Lower Manhattan, not all that far from where Robinson played for the Brooklyn Dodgers, is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for Robinson’s 100-year-old widow, Rachel, who was there for the museum’s last ribbon cutting. Della Breton, President and CEO of The Jackie Robinson Foundationfounded in 1973, and established by his wife in his honor after his untimely death in 1972 at the age of 53.

[Photo: Gensler]

“The museum represents the final part of Rachel’s vision to preserve the legacy of her late husband,” says Hans Neubert, creative director of digital experience design at global architecture firm Gensler, which designed the museum. Gensler has worked with the foundation for more than a dozen years, designing its New York City headquarters, focusing on leadership and providing scholarships to college students of color. Neubert says the challenge in creating a museum about a famous figure has been to find ways to improve the story people already know and raise the bar for deeper stories they may not know.

This required not emphasizing the famous one-line story from the start. The main exhibit in the museum has nothing to do with Robinson’s operator or Robinson’s color blocker. Sections in the main gallery explore Robinson’s work and life outside of sports, including his military service; his role in 1957 as the first black vice president of a major corporation, the Chock Full o’ Nuts coffee brand; His civil rights activism in the late 1950s, and his time as a sports broadcaster in the 1960s.

Robinson’s mathematical history is not ignored. One big show focuses on his extensive athletic career: from writing letters in four UCLA sports to being, reportedly, The first person to dip a basketball for his career in baseball. In 1997, Major League Baseball took the rare step of retiring Robinson’s jersey number, 42, across the entire league.

“It was a huge part of the creative challenge we collectively set ourselves up to be, on the one hand, to celebrate his legacy and, on the other hand, to make his legacy mean something for the future which is calling for people to take action to move forward with that legacy,” Neubert says.

[Photo: Gensler]

A highlight of the museum is Game Day, an interactive scale model from Brooklyn’s 1940s-era Ebbets Field, where visitors can relive one of Robinson’s games through multimedia and video content for both the game and the events taking place in the city and world.

Neubert says Game Day is part of the museum’s focus on placing Robinson’s life in a larger context, and showing how world events have shaped his activism, career, and athletic career.

The museum also includes a section explaining Robinson’s impact on the world, with 42 video screens showing notable figures from the worlds of politics, sports, and business talking about the role Robinson played in directing or inspiring their own work.

“This museum isn’t just about him, and it’s not just about race,” Neubert says. “It’s about citizenship and humanity.”

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