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The Billy Graham Library: Serious legacy or Disney-style Attraction? A Lesson in Branding

Today’s Los Angeles Times, and many other news sources are covering the interesting controversy about the upcoming opening of the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, North Carolina. Charlotte is my hometown, and I have the greatest respect for the Graham organization, so I was very interested in what was happening in “Billy Graham country.” The library and museum is about to open, but the earliest viewers (even Billy himself) seem to be somewhat surprised at the results. While some like it – as a serious tribute to the remarkable evangelist – others believe it’s more of a tourist driven, Disney-like display that will ultimately cheapen his legacy. It’s really a question of following through with the Billy Graham brand. Did the designers consider how the viewers would interpret the look, feel, and style of the place? Does that reflect the image they want to project about the man and his legacy?

It’s a great example of keeping in mind the brand – particularly when we deal with “legacy” projects. Remember, the definition of “branding” is “the story that surrounds a product, organization, or person.” In this situation, does the story that’s told in the building, the structure, the exhibits, and the content tell that same story?

It will be interesting to see…


From the Los Angeles Times

Billy Graham, tourist attraction

The evangelist’s life is honored in a hometown museum. But some think the Disney-like displays cheapen his legacy.

By Stephanie Simon
Times Staff Writer

May 28, 2007

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The other day, Billy Graham toured the showy museum that will soon open here to honor his six decades of bringing God’s word to the high and the humble.

America’s best-known evangelist walked through stage-set re-creations of the barn on his parents’ dairy farm; the canvas tent where he held his first blockbuster revival; a graffiti-scarred checkpoint at the Berlin Wall, symbolizing his crusades behind the Iron Curtain.

As Graham finished the tour, his son Franklin recalled, Franklin asked how he had liked the tribute. The gruff reply: “Too much Billy Graham.”

With Graham, at 88, in failing health, his family and friends have struggled to find an appropriate way to commemorate and carry on his work. A humble man who never saw a need to upgrade his cheap suits or his modest mountaintop home, Graham at first shrank from the idea of turning his life storyinto a tourist attraction.

Only when he was convinced that the project would serve as a perpetual crusade — a tribute not to him but to Jesus Christ — did Graham give it his blessing.

“The last thing my father wanted was to have a monument to himself,” Franklin Graham said.

The Billy Graham Library is intensely focused on the Gospel, with dozens of video clips of Graham quoting Scripture. But the $27-million museum also boasts a splash of Disney, and that’s troubled some of Graham’s admirers.

Their concerns start just inside the enormous glass cross that forms the door to the 40,000-square-foot museum. The lobby is set up like a barn to evoke Graham’s boyhood on a North Carolina dairy farm. Hens cluck on a soundtrack. A stuffed cat heaves a battery-powered sigh.

And amid bales of hay, a cow that looks uncannily lifelike begins to sing.

In a calculatedly Southern drawl — the first attempt at a voice-over was deemed too Yankee — Bessie tells visitors how a young Billy Frank used to practice preaching as he milked her. She invites children on a scavenger hunt as they walk through the museum, promising free ice cream at the snack bar as a prize. “Get moooving!” she urges.

Franklin Graham thinks the talking cow will teach children what he sees as the central message of his father’s life: that God can do mighty works with anyone who submits to him, even a poor farm boy.

But critics, who emphasize that they have not seen the finished museum, worry that Bessie may be too gimmicky, unbefitting Billy Graham’s air of dignity and purpose.

Eddie Gibbs, a senior professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, opened a recent interview about the library with an anxious question: “Is the cow still there?” His response to Bessie’s animatronic presence: “Oh, noooooo!”

“I would hate to see Billy Graham’s memory tarnished or cheapened,” Gibbs said.

Some of Graham’s five children apparently have similar concerns.

A Washington Post story over the winter detailed a rift in the family, with some heirs deriding the museum as tacky — like a Cracker Barrel restaurant, one reportedly said. Graham’s wife, Ruth, was quoted as calling the library a “circus” and rebuffing Franklin Graham’s pleas that she and Billy be buried there.

Among the children, only Franklin could be reached last week; he called the reports of a family feud overblown, and said he expected all of his siblings to attend the museum’s dedication Thursday.

Billy Graham also plans to attend.

“I’m humbled that anyone would want to honor me in this way,” he said in an e-mail interview. He added that he’d instructed Franklin and other museum designers “to point people to Christ rather than to make it too much about me.”

That emphasis on the spiritual disappoints some scholars, who wish the museum would also examine Graham’s political clout. There are pictures of him with every president from Harry Truman to George W. Bush, but visitors get no sense of what Graham said to those in power, or how his theology shaped his politics.

Graham’s views were forceful and complex. He refused to segregate his audiences, personally removing the ropes that separated blacks from whites during a 1953 crusade in Tennessee. Yet he opposed mandatory integration.

He strongly supported the Jewish people, but exchanged anti-Semitic remarks with President Richard Nixon. Graham backed the Vietnam War, called for nuclear disarmament, railed against communism and urged more government aid to the poor.

“His legacy deserves a critical look — it really does,” said Michael Long, editor of an upcoming book called “The Legacy of Billy Graham.”

“I would hope the museum would be very honest,” Long said, “but I would suspect it will be another piece of propaganda.”

The museum, which will not charge admission, was funded by private donations. Many longtime supporters of Graham’s ministry gave; the Charlotte business community, eager to support another tourist draw, also contributed. The exhibits were developed in part by ITEC Entertainment Co. of Orlando, Fla., which has created attractions for Disney and Six Flags.

Tourists will see several dozen artifacts from Graham’s life, including a poem written for him by rock star Bono; a medal from Queen Elizabeth; photos of him with Muhammad Ali, Johnny Cash, John F. Kennedy Jr. (After his father protested there was too much Billy Graham, Franklin took down some of the snapshots, but he couldn’t bear to strip them all.)

Most of the exhibits consist of clips of Graham preaching through the years, with the video screens tucked into re-created scenes from his life. Counselors will stand at the exits to pray with visitors who feel moved to give their lives to
Jesus Christ.

The multimedia approach impressed Laura Hill, a Charlotte tourism promoter. “It’s not as stuffy as you’d expect,” she said.

In the first year, the Billy Graham Library and Graham’s boyhood home (moved, brick by brick, to the property) are expected to attract 200,000 tourists. That’s double the number projected to visit the NASCAR Hall of Fame, scheduled to open here in 2010.

The anticipated crowds reflect Graham’s astounding reach. A Gallup Poll two years ago found that 35 million Americans — one in six adults — had heard him preach in person. Millions more have tuned in on radio or TV. Graham has appeared on Gallup’s most-admired list 48 times, far outpacing every other nominee.

Former presidents Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton are expected to attend the library’s dedication. The exhibits will open to the public June 5.

Prepping last week for the grand opening, workers laid out chips in the snack bar and surveyed the tidy gift shop, with its stacks of $12 Billy Graham ball caps and $10 stuffed cows wearing Billy Graham T-shirts.

Franklin Graham, meanwhile, was giving a tour — and making a mental note of last-minute details, such as the smudged fingerprints on a glass walk-through crucifix.

Suddenly a man ran up to Franklin. “I just want to say that thanks to your father, I’m a saved man,” he called out. “Philadelphia, 1960. I was 9 years old.”

The man, Jon Silla, a local photographer, was there to take pictures for museum architects. Before unloading his cameras, though, Silla paused at an exhibit made to look like a 1960s-era Main Street. In a mock storefront, a dozen old TVs played black-and-white clips of a skinny young evangelist begging the crowd to feel God’s love.

The words that Silla credits with his salvation rang out: “For God so loved the world, he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

Eyes glistening, Silla stood in silence, listening once more to Billy Graham preach.


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  1. I think it could be very cool for a family experience. I think they probably wanted to make it as user-friendly as possible. (Imagine a Mom saying, "Hey kids. We're going on vacation to see a library." Gee, thanks Mom. That's swell.) So, I guess it'll be good to hear the public's reactions before we hear from the news critics, 'cause they may be totally different. (Although, the gigantic cross door-way does sound a bit kitchy… I think producers and designers imagine Christians to be terribly impressed by those type of things. Oh, well). But, if this causes the secular public to debate the legacy of Billy Graham, then bravo. The fact that it would stir conversation is worth all of the money they've put into it.

  2. I traveled to the Holy Land years ago with a Catholic group.  I was so saddened to see all the giant, ugly, broken churches that had been built on top of key Bible landmarks (as the Catholics understood them) by well meaning followers with bad taste and little money.

    I left wishing Disney had gotten there first…give me a manger in Bethelem…

    My point? I would rather see the story told in a compelling, creative way.  Maybe its overboard..but better than moving his childhood home ….

  3. I've been reading about the Billy Graham Museum.  My husband and I plan to make a trip there as soon as we can get away.  In 1959, my husband, Jim Giese, and two of his siblings recorded "The Ballad of Billy Graham", written by Red River Dave McEnery.  We recently came across the 45 rpm record, and took it to a studio to have it played and recorded on CD for us to keep.  We also found the original score of the music and words with the record.  Jim would love to release this song to the public, as he so admires Mr. Graham's work.  The song does tell about Billy Graham, but it also tells the message he has preached so many years.  How would we get your approval for this project? 


    We've been told by someone that has seen the museum that a copy of this record hangs on a wall in the museum. 


    Jean Giese

  4. If it's your song, then you own the copyright, and shouldn't need anyone's approval.  I would consult with an attorney just in case, but without knowing more, if it's your creation, then it should be yours.

  5. I wrote about our family's account visiting the Billy Graham Library, an all-around enjoyable experience for all. We were there some ten days after Ruth had been buried and were able to visit her burial site, the homestead, and the library.

    The talking cow was fun (at least our two young boys thought so) with nothing else present to suggest that the library was designed to be a tourist trap. I understand that Disney was consulted, but beyond the blithe bovine there weren't any other characters chattering away.

    During our tour, we learned a lot about Billy Graham, his wife, his family, and the ministry and the sacrifices many people made so that the evangelist could carry the gospel to the far reaches of the earth.

    If a brand was being promoted, I think it got lost in the gospel message.




  6. In a week a group from my church and I are going up to visit the Graham Museum and we have several ladies who are not (really spry) and have a difficult time walking long distances and climbing stairs, we even might need a wheel chair for one, do they have stairs and do they have aids for those who find it difficult to walk? Any help would be so appreciated in these matters,

    Yours in Christ


  7. There was a comment about Mr graham being humble and not buying new suits or fixing up his house. This must have been when he just started. His salary is now $465,000.00 a year from tith payers money. That would not include all the expenses payed by the association. Mr Graham and his son, who also makes over $400,000.00 a year have become very rich from Christianity. The Apostles were poor, but they preached the Gospel into all the known world and never took money for it.

  8. After trying vainly since the barn-like museum opened to get anyone to accompany me, I finally got an out-of-town friend (a NASA engineer) to visit the site with me. The restored house is a marvel–most things, and all of the kitchen, are of the period (1920s). The SCALE of the barn, with its 40-foot-high glass cross that contains the doors (not “is the door,” as news reports have it) is appropriate. We had to wait a few minutes while a film, in an open niche between the animatronic cow’s mini-barn and part of the large gift shop, played out. Then the cow began to…TALK, not–again, as news reports said–sing. The skin of the cow is a real cow’s skin–you can see the stitches–and that IS a bit creepy. (Don’t point that out to the kids.) Only the mouth/nose and ears are fake. And atop the cow’s head is a horizontal row of tight blond CURLS; after all, the cow is female. This bit of tasteless kitsch jarred me. Then…the cow began to talk, in a Southern accent, really “down home-y,” to tell the story of the Franklin family’s dairy farm and how serving the Charlotte community milk led to Billy’s desire to serve the world religion. The narration goes on…and on…and ON…and the whole thing got tiring and very, very creepy. I just wanted a “Stop now” button. Behind it, in a compressed fake dairy barn, eight flattened-perspective fake cow rumps stuck out from their stalls, four on a side. Their tails periodically twitched. Near the vocal cow, on a ledge, an animatronic cat twitched its tail and ears and moved its head and mouth. But I can see why Billy Graham himself had reservations about this Disneyland-like creation, and its prominence right inside the entrance. But showman Franklin (who recently [2009] was forced to give up one of his two half-million-dollar salaries, “unbecoming to a leader of a charity,” was determined to have the cow–and the barn, and the gift shop, with its $1 postcards (not top quality, either) and its myriad baseball caps and T-shirts. It’s all too much, and it does not befit a minister of God, and it will not likely, I think, convert anyone to Christianity or to being a Baptist. It’s a place of pilgrimage for the already-cleansed. When we inquired about walking quickly through the rest of the museum, to the library, a nearby guide almost pushed us into taking the whole trip; he was actually a bit forceful. Later however another guide behind the gift shop, where the tour begins, suggested that if we had limited time we “just walk through at your own pace, pausing when you want to.” The first guy was a pushy Pentecostal, the second a Unitarian! We had frozen dairy product ($1) in the large cafe adjacent to the gift shop, then left. I felt that the Lincoln soliloquy in Epcot Center in FL was preachy enough to be weird, but this cow was way too much. Even the Vatican doesn’t (yet?) have an animatronic Pius Xii, explaining his cozy relationship with the Nazis, or a John Paul II, in a computer-generated recreation of his travels to nearly all the world’s political divisions. But if they want to get more competitive, they’ll probablyl go talk to the Disney engineers…

  9. We should remember that God spoke through Balaam’s “donkey” and our Lord stated that even the stones would proclaim Him if…think on the Word and we won’t err if we hide it in our hearts.

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