The greatest

On your way to Nashville from Ottawa, you pass through Kentucky. Pretty much inevitable. And unless you’re going to go mine coal or race a horse, you could almost be forgiven for only stopping for gas.

Louisville is right on the Ohio River, looking across at Indiana. It’s the self-proclaimed “Gateway to the South”. But Louisville has some heavy hitters in its corner, most namely Muhammad Ali, J-Law, and the world’s largest baseball bat.

Sometimes you just have to close your eyes and point, so we did.

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This is the outside of the Muhammad Ali Center, with J-Law’s enormous face looming down on you from another building across the street (I don’t think they have a J-Law Center…yet).

What do you need to know about the Muhammad Ali Center? It’s really pretty great, and the most wonderful thing about it is you don’t have to know anything about boxing. You don’t even have to like boxing. (An aside: I recently saw the film Creed in the theatres, and as I squirmed through the first fight scene I thought, very clearly, “I friggin’ hate boxing.”).

But Muhammad Ali was so much more than just a boxer, right? He was a man of colour from a southern state at a time when he could be a gold-medal winning Olympic athlete, but not get served at a diner counter. (Note: audio here was particularly effective, a overhead bell ringing as a door creaks open and a man telling you that you can’t sit here, to go somewhere else.)

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And this is almost where we start. Not with the boxing (there will be plenty of that later), and not even with the lunch counter.

No. You start with this:

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Yes. The second-largest escalator in Kentucky. (I’m secretly hoping that we get this question in some future pub trivia game…I am seriously going to kill at this stuff).

Where you actually start is with the introductory film which was down for servicing. One imagines that you don’t really need an introduction to Ali, and you’d be right-ish, because as I progressed through the first part of the (large) exhibition, I realized that I didn’t know much beyond “he’s a boxer with a lot of swagger”.

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Okay, escalator and non-intro video aside, almost the first thing you come to is a nice theatre in the round where I imagine you could lay back and look up at the nice swirly projection (the whole place makes some very nice use of projections) surrounded by explanations of Ali’s spiritual journey, of his philosophy, which is important. It’s not some afterthought. It’s really the underpinning of Ali’s way of being, and what he wants to put out to the world (one presumes).

After having worked on a project for the Aga Khan Foundation Canada, I recognized this initial room and appreciated what it was trying to do. Especially without the introductory film, this room perhaps took on more importance–it was the de facto introduction and it coloured the rest. In a good way.

The rest took us through Ali’s socio-political life, didn’t shy from his treatment and attitude towards women (especially in earlier days), and placed Ali in an historical context.

And it did this with some great clips and wonderful audio and OH MY GOD SO MUCH TEXT.

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Now, for someone who writes museum text for a living…this was a lot of text. It was certainly too much text for me and my head reeled at the idea of how I would have approached a similar story…in two official languages. On the other hand, I was with the Professor, who reads everything. He was rolling around in the text, finding more text (projected on the floor…there was no escaping it!!!), pointing things out to me, nodding his head. He loved the text. If you’d asked him, he’d have said it was just about the right amount of text.

Which goes to show: it takes all kinds.

Now, about the bilingual aspect–the Ali Center had a neat trick I hadn’t seen before.

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Turn the bar, and the screen changes to Spanish. Sweeeet. There was also video embedded in the screens, and all videos were captioned (more text!)

But here’s the bit I loved the most, and I’m sure I’m not alone with this–the Center, which has been open for 10 years, has probably done a ton of visitor surveys and I bet this is the thing people love the most:

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We come to the boxing. Standing at the 4th level and looking down to the 2nd, a professional size ring acts as a screen for a kick-ass video projection of Ali’s career. This is a perfect combination of great exhibitry meeting deep content. Sometimes, the images are perfectly set within the actual physical ring, and you can easily imagine you’re there, you’re watching Ali do his thing. It’s genius. Totally moving and exciting and mesmerizing.

Considering it’s February, you could have shot a cannon through the place and not hit anyone, but I imagine that come summer, the Center attracts a fair bit of business, probably a lot of families with kids and possibly wanna-be boxers. So, for those inclined to climb in the ring and bash other people, there’s the Bruno Mars Boxing Ring (try on gloves and Ali’s daughter shows you how to box), a shadow-boxing interactive and a punching bag where you can set the dial from beginner to expert and try to keep rhythm.

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As anyone who knows the Doyles knows–they have no rhythm. So the next frame of this shot ended badly.

I loved the Center–for someone who knew next-to-nothing about Ali, it was very moving (I cried a little at the end, when you stand among a small forest of Olympic torches and watch a shaking, unbroken Ali light the Olympic Flame at the 1996 Atlanta Games), and there were some nice ancillary exhibitions–the Selma to Montgomery photo exhibition was really thoughtful.

The Center’s slogan is “Be Great: Do Great Things” and its purpose is to inspire people to get involved with their communities. In this way it reminded me a lot of the Aga Khan Foundation, and the spirit of the place, despite or maybe because of the very literal pugilism, was freakily serene.

Their website: http://alicenter.org/

 

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