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Selling Sport Heritage

A number of months back, I took a look at the website of the new College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta to see who were the people involved in interpreting the site.  I imagined that I’d easily be able to find the researchers, historians, and curators working at the Hall, as I was hoping to connect with them during my next trip through town.  I find that talking with the people directly responsible for presenting and interpreting the heritage helps me to understand the current tensions, struggles, issues, and challenges at contemporary sport heritage sites.

Interestingly, I was unable to find anyone related curatorship or collections management or interpretation at the Hall.  In fact, the Hall’s “Leadership” has (from what I can tell) no experience in museological practice. This is not to say that there aren’t any researchers, etc, working at the Hall (they simply might not be on the Hall’s webpage), nor is this to suggest that the Hall itself is lacking in contextual or critical content (I’ve never been to it).  But, I did find it strange that the Hall’s leadership not only uniformly comes from sales and marketing backgrounds, but seem to have no experience running a hall of fame or any other museum or heritage attraction.

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In their foundational text, The Geography of Heritageprofessors Brian Graham, Gregory Ashworth, and John Tunbridge remind us that heritage is a commodity that is sold in different ways to different groups at different periods of time.  As such, even at the most traditional museums, the objects and exhibitions at any given time are commoditized in different ways, from selling tote bags and memberships to soliciting political, cultural, and financial support.  However, often, even the most brazenly commercial heritage attraction will make at least a nominal nod to being “educational” or having worth beyond its business aims.

Perhaps that’s what struck me most about the way the College Football Hall of Fame is positioned – it makes no such pretension to being anything other than a commercial venture whose job it is to sell the college football “experience” back to consumers (Perhaps the strange thing is that, for many of the visitors, the college football “experience” will be familiar to them – after all, there are numerous top-level college football programs both within Atlanta as well as a short drive from the city. But, I digress…). Simply put, there is little – at least that I could find – about the educational value of a visit to the site (there is a teacher resource guide buried in the site, but that’s about it). Other Halls of Fame are commercial crowd-pleasers as well, but will have centres for public research for example (such as at the National Baseball Hall of Fame or the Hockey Hall of Fame), or will have specific “education” or “learn” sections on their websites perhaps both as a lure for school and family visits, as well as for remote research – say, for school reports.  However, the College Football Hall of Fame appears to not view itself as a resource or educational centre at all.

Rather than this be a critique of the College Football Hall of Fame (again, I’ve never been there), I wonder whether the Hall shows the future of sport heritage, particularly whether sport heritage sites see that they should play an educative role beyond their commercial needs. Furthermore, I wonder whether places like the Hall demonstrate the new wave of sports museums, ones run by marketers and sales people and interactive games designers and without the traditional museum positions of curators, or interpreters, or historians, or educational programmers. Again, this is not to say that sport heritage attractions need not be commercial ventures, or that they ought not look to develop revenue streams – these are integral and necessary in today’s environment.  Rather, do contemporary sports museums and sport heritage attractions believe they are educational resources, that they are learning centres as well as attractions, and that they have a role in creating, hosting, and housing debates about sport history and contemporary sporting practices?  In other words, do contemporary sports museums believe they have a public role beyond their private commercial aims? Or, are they (and perhaps, should they) only be interested in these roles if they somehow augment their commercial ventures?  Does a resource centre or research room or archive only matter if it can somehow help rent museum space for weddings and birthday parties?  Is the College Football Hall of Fame model the future in sports museums, and what might that mean for the conservation, interpretation, and dissemination of sport heritage?


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