Take a virtual tour of the Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan THNK 1994 Museum in Brooklyn
On a winter night in early 2015, comedians and roommates Viviana Rosales Olen and Matt Harkins were eating snacks and flipping through Netflix when they stumbled upon "Price of Gold," an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary.
The doc examined figure skater Tonya Harding's involvement with the knee-clubbing of competitor Nancy Kerrigan leading up to the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. It was later revealed that Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, had plotted the attack with his friends to eliminate Kerrigan from the competition.
Amazed and intrigued by what they saw, Olen and Harkins decided to start a museum centered around the two iconic figure skaters.
Yep, that's right.
They posted about their vision on Kickstarter, a creative project funding platform, initially hoping to receive about $75 to print out posters at convenience store Duane Reade. But, the concept quickly received national attention (including from us at espnW). They raised the necessary funds and opened the museum in the hallway of their apartment and posted whatever they could find about Kerrigan and Harding on the wall.
It was a runaway success, and the two were able to move the museum out of their apartment and into an actual gallery in March of this year. Located in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, the THNK 1994 Museum -- that, of course, stands for Tonya Harding, Nancy Kerrigan -- features a permanent collection dedicated to the two skaters, as well as rotating exhibits featuring various pop culture themes. The current revolving exhibit is called "Nicole Richie's 2007 Memorial Day BBQ" and the next one, slated for an October opening, is entitled "Real Housewives Pointing Fingers."
Olen, 30, and Harkins, 29, had no idea they would receive the attention they did, nor did they ever expect to be curators of their own museum. Both are former members of the famed comedy troupe Upright Citizens Brigade, so their mission came with criticism. Many believed the museum was merely a publicity stunt.
However, more than two years later, it's clear their vision was not only authentic but also has resonated with people all across the country. For Olen and Harkins, it's a complete labor of love.
"It all happened organically," Olen said. "And we've made a lot of sacrifices. We share a room right now, and we're honestly too old to do that."
Ahead of the world premiere of the new Harding biopic, "I, Tonya," at the Toronto International Film Festival on Friday, the two gave us a tour of the space and shared some of their favorite pieces in the collection.
Olen calls the side-by-side stitched portraits the "piece de resistance" and "the Mona Lisa" of the museum. A married couple named Rebecca and Josh reached out when they first heard about the museum and asked if they could make something, to which Olen and Harkins immediately said, "yes." They were kept up to date on the artwork's progress throughout the month but had no idea what to expect.
"Rebecca told us, 'This is going to be to be the greatest thing I ever stitched,'" Olen said. "She would send us pictures as it was coming together. We were very impressed."
"I remember when it came in, I was having such a bad day, and then the package arrived, and I thought, 'This woman who we've never met made these for us.' It changed my whole day. It was just great."
Submitted by another fan and Harding-Kerrigan enthusiast, this drawing depicts the skaters as the twins from "The Shining" -- complete with the iconic dresses and, of course, figure skates. It is a rare depiction of Kerrigan as anything other than a victim.
"When we first started this, it was like, 'Are you a Tonya or are you a Nancy?' and Matt immediately thought he was a Nancy, and I was like, 'I am SO a Tonya,'" Olen said. "As we've evolved, we don't know if 'Nancys' actually exist."
The museum is a mixture of fan-submitted work and memorabilia, along with items purchased on eBay, and the two regularly search the web for new pieces they can include. This picture of Harding, barefoot and running from the press, was found on the online auction site. Other similar acquisitions include a photograph from Harding and Kerrigan's shared practice at the Olympics, weeks after the attack, and various tabloid magazine covers.
"When we had this up first in our hallway, there were a lot of screenshots from the documentary," said Harkins. "But since we've moved here, we weren't sure if we were allowed to do that. We tried to get more things from eBay, and that helped tell the story."
Shortly after announcing their plans for the museum in 2015, the pair heard from longtime figure skating reporter Lois Elfman. She had covered the U.S. championships in 1994 where Kerrigan had been attacked and subsequently sidelined from competition. Elfman had kept a variety of items from that day, including her media credential and the paper printout of the final results.
"She was the first person we met who gave us like a real artifact," said Harkins. "This was the sheet that was handed out at the championships that year in Detroit at Joe Louis Arena where the attack happened. We see Tonya in first, Michelle Kwan in second, and down here, Nancy, 'Did Not Start.' And that's because she was attacked."
"This is what launched everything," said Olen. "She gave us all these things, and they were obviously so important to her."
"I think that initial joke of, 'We're starting a museum,' quickly became, 'Oh, wait, people are giving us things that they care about, and they're entrusting us,' so we realized we had to make this as nice as possible," he added. "That's been the goal ever since."
A video plays on a continuous loop with coverage from the attack on Kerrigan and the sensational aftermath. Notably, they do not include footage of Kerrigan crying in pain after, mostly because of how horrific it is to watch, but also because they are sure they would have nightmares about it every night if they were to hear it repeatedly day in and day out.
While both figure skaters are largely out of the public eye these days, and the exhibit tends to focus mainly on the events of 1994, Kerrigan appeared on last season of ABC's "Dancing with the Stars." When fellow former skater (and "DWTS" cast member) Kristi Yamaguchi tweeted her support for Kerrigan saying, "Break a leg" the internet had a field day. Kerrigan and Yamaguchi had some fun with it as well, and that, of course, ended up in the museum as a rare glimpse into the present day.
As soon as Olen and Harkins decided to open the museum, they knew they needed to include a diorama of Harding they had seen on the internet. Made months before they announced their plans, they desperately tried to seek out the artist, to no avail.
"We were trying to figure out how to acquire it, and then she randomly emailed us and was like, 'Would you maybe want to show this,' said Olen. "And we said, 'We've been looking for you forever!' So she sent it to us, first-class shipping, which was like $40, we couldn't risk anything getting damaged. It is an important piece of art. We're so happy it's here."
Olen and Harkins have tried to meet as many of the artists whose work is featured as possible, but they still have yet to meet many of them as they live all over the country. However, they still consider them friends and are grateful for the eclectic community the museum has created.
"I think that's what 'micro-museums' are, whatever brings you together, come here or reach out online, we'll talk about it, we'll connect," said Olen. "At first when we were letting strangers into the hallway of our apartment, people were like, 'How could you let strangers into your apartment?' But when you've dated in New York for 10 years, you can handle anything."
Harding was largely vilified in the national media at the time, but she received a fairly warm Olympics homecoming reception from fans in her hometown of Portland, Oregon. Olen and Harkins have noted the generational divide in perception of the spectacle today when families come to the museum.
"We always tell people to bring their mom," said Olen. "A lot of people bring their moms, and it's interesting because they have such different recollections of it from one another. Younger people might not remember it the same way, and it's so fascinating to watch that."
While this cover is from a figure-skating magazine, many of the publications featured are from tabloids like The National Enquirer and Star Magazine. Many of which the duo found online, but others have been donated from museum goers who had been holding on to magazines for over two decades.
"A woman who we just met, she came through for the most recent exhibit, dropped off this huge stack of old National Enquirers," said Olen. "She was like, 'Do you want these?' And we were like, 'YES.' We love it when people bring us stuff."
"There was someone, maybe two months ago, they had a magazine from around this time and Nancy was on the cover," said Harkins. "I think people forget about it, and then they see this stuff, and are reminded that they have it. I love it, and these magazines are so fun to go through."
While the museum keeps growing in popularity and as a cultural phenomenon, neither Harding nor Kerrigan has yet to visit. But Olen and Harkins are hopeful that the skaters will drop in one day, but only if they remember to bring their $6 suggested donation for entry.