- Associated Press - Monday, September 17, 2012

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — At first glance, a new museum exhibit in Kentucky seems to be an assortment of ordinary stuff: a hammer, shoes, scientific instruments. On closer inspection, these unassuming items achieved the extraordinary.

The collection at Western Kentucky University showcases more than 140 common items used by luminaries in entertainment, politics, art, literature, sports and science.

There is equipment used by explorer Robert Ballard, who discovered the wreck of the Titanic; a film splicer from documentarian Ken Burns’ editing room; and dance shoes worn by Liza Minnelli in a Tony Award-winning performance.

Other items include a hammer used by former President Jimmy Carter to build Habitat for Humanity houses, Jay Leno’s desk microphone for several years on “The Tonight Show” and lab equipment used by Nobel Prize-winning scientists.

It’s a mish-mash of “ordinary tools that helped define a nation’s greatness,” WKU President Gary Ransdell said.

The permanent exhibit, called the “Instruments of American Excellence Collection” — opens Friday at the Kentucky Museum on WKU’s campus in Bowling Green.

The collection is the brainchild of Dan Murph, a country songwriter who lives near the university’s campus and in Nashville, Tenn.

Mr. Murph, the collection chairman, hopes the exhibit inspires visitors to pursue their own lofty ambitions.

“If the collection causes just one person to re-evaluate their career path or dream bigger or come up with a new idea or dare to try something they always wanted to try, then the collection is a total success,” he said.

Mr. Murph approached Mr. Ransdell nearly two years ago with his idea for the exhibit. Soon, a small group of students and administrators was working with Mr. Murph on compiling a list of noteworthy people to contact for donated items to build the collection.

It didn’t take long: Sculptor Raymond Kaskey sent an old wooden mallet used in some of his award-winning work. Then came another big catch — equipment used by Mr. Ballard, the famed underwater explorer, to help connect his command center with deep-sea robots.

“That’s the first item where we looked at each other and realized, ‘OK this can work, this is possible,’ ” Mr. Murph said.

The response rate would be the envy of any solicitor. About three-quarters of those contacted have contributed, Mr. Ransdell said. The university spent about $125,000 to renovate and prepare the exhibit space.

Items range from scholarly to whimsical.

There’s a bound copy of the U.S. Constitution that now-retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor kept in her chambers and lab tools used by Roger D. Kornberg, who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry.

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