Paul Van Wicklen drives a cherry picker in a library.
It’s actually a vault, and Van Wicklen is the vault manager. The cherry picker makes its way down an enormous aisle underneath the University of Georgia’s Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library. There are two other rooms just like it.
“Each one consists of four aisles that are 170 feet long by 32 feet tall,” Van Wicklen said. We keep everything at 50 degrees Fahrenheit with a relative humidity of 30%.”
The chilly temperatures are the standard archival settings that protect documents and artifacts long term. There are thousands of them in the vault.
Stacked alongside papers from the Colonial era and political memorabilia are the archives from the now shuttered Georgia Music Hall of Fame. The items include Nudie suits, guitars and gold records.
In 1996, the Hall of Fame opened in Macon. The city seemed like a perfect fit thanks to its rich music history and ties to artists such as Otis Redding, Little Richard and the Allman Brothers Band.
The 43,000-square-foot facility housed memorabilia from more than 450 artists. Fifteen years later, during the height of the Great Recession, the museum lost state funding and shut down. Items that were on loan were returned, but everything else was packed up and moved to the University of Georgia.
To see for yourself, you need to drive from Macon to Athens and meet Van Wicklen in the vault at the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Inside, there are boxes filled with museum artifacts including a baseball jacket that belonged to musician Georgie McCorkle.
“I’m not certain who he played with,” Van Wicklen said. “Oh, he’s with the Marshall Tucker Band, I think. But I’m not certain. Oh, it’s a Capricorn Records jacket.”
McCorkle, who died in 2007, was a founding member and guitarist for the Marshall Tucker Band, a Southern rock group signed to Macon-based Capricorn Records.
Even though the museum was based in Macon, it held artifacts from musicians across the state including Athens.
University Archivist Steve Armour said that included three different outfits and two wigs donated by the B-52's Cindy Wilson, formerly on display at the museum.
“The outfits were very flashy, very colorful and, if you know anything about the B-52’s, you would see those fit right in with their style and then, of course, their iconic wigs,” Armour said. “We have a couple of beehive wigs.”
Armour, who catalogued the Hall of Fame’s collection said while many of the library’s visitors are researchers, anyone can request access. While the vault is not open to the public, items can be brought to you in the library.
Periodically, items are also lent out to other museums or put on display at the library’s small gallery, such as John Bell’s ruined boat shoes. He’s the lead singer of Widespread Panic.
Jan Hebbard is the exhibit coordinator here and she puts the shows together with the help of her students. She said the Widespread Panic display shows a big part of Athen's music history where the band held its iconic album release street party.
“They toured like over 150 days a year, you know,” Hebbard said. “John Bell is probably not worried about his shoes; he’s just jamming and doesn’t care about them. They’re just totally worn through.”
Hebbard said she gravitates toward artifacts with stories behind them. And she hopes the people of Macon will know the Georgia Music Hall of Fame collection has a good home here.
University Archivist Christian Lopez said he hopes the library can keep adding to it.
“We’re building an archive and we want to be a Georgia music archive,” Lopez said. “Having that cornerstone collection says to other people who might want to donate materials, I want my stuff to be there, too, because they have that.”
And, as that collection grows, the items will be stacked alongside others in the vault where Van Wicklen opened another box through a crush of tissue paper.
“And there’s this black suit here,” he said. “It looks like it belonged to, according to the descriptor, it belonged to Tricia Yearwood.”
The suit is just one of thousands of pieces of Georgia music history safely underground in Athens.