|Should you go?|
|Time spent||74 minutes|
|Best thing I saw or learned||In 1956 the Brooklyn Dodgers made a goodwill tour of Japan. It’s a footnote to Jackie Robinson’s story but I loved the display containing photos, tickets, and other souvenirs from that trip.|
I grew up a fan of both science fiction and dry English humor. As a result, whenever I see the number 42 I immediately think of the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything.
If instead I had grown up in Brooklyn and been a fan of baseball, the number 42 would’ve had a similarly huge and cosmic significance. It was Jackie Robinson’s number when he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1947 to 1956.
That significance of 42 is explored in detail at one of New York City’s newest museums (as of April 2023), the Jackie Robinson Museum, located somewhat unexpectedly in Soho.
Texts and timelines
The Jackie Robinson Museum occupies a bright ground floor space at the corner of Canal and Varick Streets. It’s something of a shame, actually, as the south-facing windows are almost entirely blocked by displays. A bit of daylight sneaks around them, but the design diminishes some the potential awesomeness of the space.
The museum comprises two main galleries: One devoted to Robinson the man and the other to Robinson the athlete. Smaller spaces invite visitors to “speak out, stand up!” (in a stairwell) and highlight Jackie Robinson in pop culture (by the restrooms). The curators take a role-based approach to Robinson’s life: soldier, activist, entrepreneur, family man, and of course athlete. Each of those pillars of the man is represented by a literal pillar in the museum, summarized by nice little infographics of key stats: “Jackie by the Numbers.”
Infographics notwithstanding, the museum is extremely text-heavy — it felt like reading a Jackie Robinson biography printed on the walls (the photo here is typical). Indeed, it surprised me how little video the museum uses. (More on that in a moment.)
Beyond the copious amounts of text, each gallery contains a giant wall-filling timeline, one for Robinson’s life and one for his sports career.
Where’s Jackie Robinson?
If there was one thing missing from the Jackie Robinson Museum it’s, surprisingly, Jackie Robinson himself. For sure, there are lots of photos of him, and memorabilia, and quotations in wall texts. But for a very famous person who must’ve given countless radio and television interviews — the museum says that he even starred in his own biopic — there’s very little of that in the Jackie Robinson Museum.
It’s a notable contrast to the presence of Louis Armstrong that fills the wonderful Louis Armstrong House in Queens. Louis’s self-recorded audio journals bring the place to life. Here, Robinson doesn’t tell his own story so much as have it told for him, and the experience is poorer for it.
It’s not that the place is against media. There’s a whole corner of interactive tablets featuring public figures delivering encomiums to Jackie Robinson’s general awesomeness, but not Robinson himself.
I’m never one to advocate for tech for its own sake, but in this metaversal age, if there’s any New York museum that could justify a tasteful holographic re-creation of its raison d’etre, it’s this museum.
The museum does include a fun, interactive, multi-sensory recreation of Ebbets Field (the Dodgers’ legendary stadium in Flatbush). So the curators thought along these lines.
Should you visit the Jackie Robinson Museum?
Old-school Brooklynites, Dodgers fans, and fans of historic moments in racial integration will definitely want to visit the Jackie Robinson Museum. Fans of Jackie Robinson’s story should also visit the awesome City Reliquary, which houses a lighthearted shrine to the man.
The museum does its job. I learned a significant amount about a historical figure I didn’t know all that much about –beyond his key historic achievement. However, I wish the narrative struck a better balance between the history and the fun, and with a lot less to read.
And when it comes to fun, the Jackie Robinson Museum swings and misses. For sure, the difficult, painful challenges of fighting racism and integrating Major League Baseball are stories this museum needs to tell. But this is also a story about baseball, and Chock Full O’Nuts coffee (When he retired from the Dodgers, Robinson became a VP there, the first Black vice president of a major American company), and being one of the most famous athletes in the world. It’s not that the Jackie Robinson Museum ignored the triumphs in Jackie Robinson’s life. It’s just that the balance felt off, and the man himself felt strangely absent. And that makes it hard to recommend to anyone with a merely casual interest.
|Address||75 Varick Street, Manhattan|
|Cost||General Admission: $18|
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