Breaking Ground: The United States Olympic and Paralympic Museum Opens to the Public

By Mimi Eisen, Historian

Last week, the United States Olympic and Paralympic Museum (USOPM) in Colorado Springs first opened to the public, and HAI is proud to have worked with design firm Gallagher & Associates on content development for the museum. Under normal circumstances, the Tokyo Summer Olympics would be taking place now, so we’re thrilled that athletes and fans alike may still celebrate the spirit and tradition of the Games in 2020. Today, we’re highlighting a few of the ways the museum has sought to cultivate a safe immersive experience for visitors in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and in the years ahead.

A racetrack runs across the Athlete Training gallery. Source: Gallagher & Associates

USOPM is groundbreaking in a number of ways. It is the first museum dedicated to the US Olympic & Paralympic teams, celebrating Colorado Springs and its iconic training center as a critical port of call on the journey of so many athletes who train to compete at the highest level. The museum guides visitors through the foundations of the Games in ancient Greece and into the modern Games, which—save for the world war years of the 20th century and the current pandemic—have continued as scheduled since their founding in 1896. Throughout its twelve galleries, the museum explores various customs and precedents over time: opening ceremonies, stand-out athletic feats, political consequences, and more. It also asks visitors to consider the multi-faceted experiences of being an Olympic or Paralympic athlete—from exceptional skill sets to personal sacrifices.  

An aerial view of USOPM, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro with Anderson Mason Dale Architects to be one of the most universally accessible museums in the country. Source: Diller Scofidio + Renfro

Of particular note is the museum’s commitment to the Paralympics and surrounding questions of accessibility and inclusion. In spotlighting the stories of Paralympians, USOPM acknowledges a far greater range of experiences, challenges, talents, and pressures than most Americans are used to seeing in the world of professional athletics and beyond. In that spirit, the 60,000-square-foot building itself boasts a thoughtful, unique design, with an open atrium and connecting ramps throughout, ensuring accessibility for all visitors. The museum is even equipped with a radio frequency identification (RFID) proximity trigger system throughout the exhibits, adaptive to visitors’ particular preferences for information transmission: larger than standard text, enhanced visuals, and audio descriptions, among others.

USOPM’s design team has also applied technology to the creation of immersive and interactive experiences. In addition to video interactives, USOPM maintains galleries that involve physical activities, allowing visitors to engage with Team USA competitors and various sports. One might try their hand at an archery simulation, for instance, as a window into the experience or inspiration of a certain athlete and skill set. 

Ceremonial torches stand on display, with interactive screens in front and behind. Source: Bill Baum/U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum

But, like most museums worldwide, USOPM’s features and activities were not originally designed with a pandemic in mind. When COVID-19 hit the United States in February of this year, USOPM faced new, major challenges and a delayed opening. Its design team and larger staff had to reconsider safety surrounding some of its most compelling and tactile interactives. And like many museum teams, they had to think through proper social distancing procedures for spaces designed to foster public gatherings. Alongside Gallagher & Associates, USOPM consulted local and state health officials to implement timed ticketing and other public health regulations that allow safe environments for visitors and staff alike. In order to maintain the exhibits’ immersive activities, they have employed specific safety measures: interactive digital screens now come equipped with individual styluses, and tactile activities include sanitation stations. In June, the team also hosted a webinar, “Opening Amid a Pandemic: Behind the Scenes at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum,” to share insight into recent challenges, opportunities, and adaptations. 

The long-term effects of the pandemic on design and social practices remain to be seen, but USOPM has pivoted quickly to meet the moment and retain the integrity of its original vision. Its technical applications and universal design make it a leading museum in interactivity and accessibility, as well as a touchstone of US Olympic and Paralympic history and culture.

For more information on ticketing, safety, gallery content, and features, visit www.usopm.org.

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