Sara Mearns, a principal dancer at the New York City Ballet, goes through about 250 pairs of pointe shoes every season.
Now, the public can see one of those pairs on display at the “Instruments of American Excellence” collection, which opened Friday at Western Kentucky University’s Kentucky Museum.
The permanent exhibit has been two years in the making and contains 150 items that Americans have used to achieve success in fields such as science, politics, music, dance, sports, journalism, manufacturing and more.
Several people who donated items to the collection attended the exhibit’s opening, including Mearns, who spoke at the ceremony.
Mearns gives a lot of her used pointe shoes to the company to sell in the gift shop, so she didn’t realize a pair had been donated to the exhibit until she got a letter in the mail thanking her for her contribution.
“It makes me speechless to think I’m part of something like this,” Mearns said. “It’s mind-blowing and such an honor.”
She hopes when people see her pointe shoes in the exhibit, they are inspired to watch a ballet performance, which isn’t as popular as other art forms, she said.
“It should be growing,” Mearns said of ballet. “It should be out there in the light, and I hope that this makes it better.”
The exhibit is something truly unique for a university to create, WKU President Gary Ransdell said. The objects in the exhibit tell the story of American ingenuity and achievement because they show how extraordinary things have been created with ordinary items.
“You know, sometimes greatness can be achieved with the simplest of instruments or tools if you’ve got the mind and the heart and the spirit to put those tools to work, and that’s what we’re about today with the opening of this exhibit,” Ransdell said.
Dan Murph, who had no prior affiliation with WKU, approached Ransdell two years ago with the idea for the exhibit.
“The idea was simple,” Murph said. “It was to collect the ordinary means by which Americans have achieved extraordinary things – the actual tools or instruments that have helped change the course of our nation’s history.”
Seeing the actual tool someone used to achieve success makes it real, Murph said.
The collection will continue to grow, and Ransdell hopes eventually some items can be part of a traveling exhibit, he said.
“What we can build this to in the future is unlimited,” Ransdell said.
The exhibit includes items that belonged to Madeline Albright, Daniel Boone, former President Jimmy Carter, Tony Hawk, Helen Keller, Liza Minnelli and many more.
Pieces of Kentucky history are featured, including a lathe that was used to create Louisville Slugger bats from the 1890s through the early 20th century.
Rick Redman, vice president for corporate communications at Hillerich and Bradsby, the company that makes Louisville Slugger bats, attended the ceremony. He said the company is honored and humbled to be part of the exhibit, because the family owned business is part of the American ingenuity the exhibit is celebrating.
“Our company is fortunate to be a great American success story,” Redman said.
Several WKU graduates and faculty members have items in the exhibit.
Tim Broekema, an associate professor of photojournalism and a WKU graduate, donated some of his photography tools to the collection. Broekema was a picture editor for The (Louisville) Courier-Journal when the editorial staff received the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for its coverage of a bus crash in Carrollton.
In the exhibit, Broekema’s negative loupe, pica pole and proportion wheel are on display. Before the age of digital photos, those items were used to select and size images.
Broekema said it’s a really fun museum to walk through, because the objects on display all meant something to somebody.
“It’s great to be part of this history,” he said.
Steve Huskey, an associate biology professor at WKU, donated the skeleton of a piranha he used for part of his research that looked at how hard piranhas can bite. National Geographic funded the project and featured it on an episode of the Naked Science series on the National Geographic channel, which aired in spring 2011, Huskey said.
Looking around at the exhibit Friday, Huskey said he wondered what an object of his was doing among the collection.
“There’s some very influential stuff here,” Huskey said. “It’s quite humbling actually.”
— The Kentucky Museum is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Admission is $5 for adults, with discounted rates for children, students, seniors and groups.