One of the assumptions made about stadium/sports venue tours and sport museums is that they have appeal to both dedicated supporters and the merely curious. In many ways, the best tours and museums strike a balance between providing an in-depth experience for the most knowledgable fan without alienating the non-supporter. The best result can be to make the supporter more supportive, and the non-supporter a fan.
The Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum, along with the tour of the venue, do a remarkable job of providing something of value to the tennis fan, as well as pushing the non-fan to follow the sport. The fact that Wimbledon is one of a handful of sporting venues that are synonymous with a sport (along with places like Churchill Downs for horse racing, or Lord’s for cricket) means that they espouse a responsibility not just for the venue and its wellbeing, but the sport as a whole. A similar notion, where a venue’s heritage experiences were felt to have larger purposes, was mentioned to me by a manager at Twickenham Stadium where he felt that the purpose of the venue’s tour and museum were not just to tell people about Twickenham but to ignite or reaffirm their love for rugby regardless of where they live. In this, both the tour and museum at Wimbledon are often about much more than Wimbledon.
Of course, one of the remarkable aspects in visiting Wimbledon for the first time is actually just how compact the entire venue is. This is something I have experienced visiting many infamous sporting venues – that the expectation of a venue noticeably removed from the rest of the surrounding geography is often not the reality. It’s not that Wimbledon is not noticeable from the surrounding landscape, but perhaps more that you might actually miss it unless you were specifically looking for it.
The tour itself mirrors many other sport stadium tours, in that it begins in the gift shop and includes stops such as the media rooms and press conference room, check-in location for the players (in lieu of visiting the locker room), and Centre Court. The tour narrative balanced history, traditions, logistics and was relatively inclusive for both dedicated tennis fans and non-tennis watchers alike. For example, when describing particular matches and players, the narrative tended towards the infamous rather than the arcane. The court where the Isner-Mahut marathon match took place, for example, was a good introduction to both the side courts as well as including something that both tennis and non-tennis fans knew and could understand. Similarly, the anecdotes were largely related to the relatively recent and famous players such as Federer, Williams, Sampras, and so on. Interestingly, the site also keeps the bracket and scores up for the entire year following The Championship, perhaps for the purposes of the tours but also maybe a nod to the prestige of winning the tournament.
There were two relatively surprising elements to the tour narrative. The first was that our guide, though largely friendly, demonstrated frustration and agitation with visitor questions. I am not sure if this was a personality quirk, something to do with scheduling (in terms of not running into other tour groups), or that he felt (or was instructed) that he could not deviate from a scripted tour narrative. In any event, even the most innocent questions (for example, about how to attend the tournament) were dismissed, often quite sharply. Granted, most of the questions were answered throughout the tour narrative, but it was extremely odd that a guide would not welcome genuine interest and curiosity about the venue and its history. Secondly, the the tour narrative was scripted as such to be quite self-conscious about the exclusivity of the tournament and venue. The guide spent an enormous amount of time discussing that the main priority of the venue managers was to promote tennis, and not to acquire more wealth. Specifically, the fact that regular people could queue each morning and purchase grounds passes for only £25, or that visitors could bring their own food and drink to the tournament rather than buying on-site, or that people who had dedicated their lives to the promotion of tennis (the example of a youth tennis instructor from “the north of England” was frequently used) were more likely to gain membership than the wealthiest of bankers with no tennis background, bolstered the venue’s egalitarian bonafides. Needless to say, much like other infamous sporting venues (passing through the “gates” of Augusta National golf club comes to mind), the Wimbledon tour narrative is rife with religious symbolism (“eye of a needle” etc.)
The Lawn Tennis Museum offered an excellent companion to the venue tour. Although there were anticipated aspects to the displays and artefacts, including history of the sport, development of equipment technology, trophies, and memorabilia from past women’s and men’s champions, two aspects stood out. The first was the museum’s use of technology, including holograms – in this case, of John McEnroe talking about playing at Wimbledon as well as some of his famous matches – and a VR exhibit that puts the visitor at Centre Court during both last year’s women’s and men’s finals. One of the challenges of places like Wimbledon, which are famous for particular annual events and which, more often than not, are very exclusive, is providing visitors something of an experience of attending or playing-at an event Wimbledon. As such, the museum does a good job of being both intellectually and sensually engaging in its interpretation, using its space to not only tell “what it was” but “what it is like”.
One of the welcome exhibits was one about media broadcasts of Wimbledon. In fact, I feel that one of the overlooked aspects of sport heritage is the role of media, in particular that much of our own, individual sport heritages are created not through attending sporting events themselves but listening to/watching them at home with friends and family. Though the exhibit was ostensibly recognizing the BBC’s history of broadcasting the tournament, there was also a section about personal memories of listening to or watching the tournament during the English summer. The fact that some of the most ardent tennis fans will have never actually attended The Championships, though nevertheless see it as part of their own summer traditions, is something that sports museums need to explore in greater detail, and that sport heritage research ought to explore further.
Despite a few strange developments on the tour, I will admit to becoming quite enamoured with Wimbledon, The Championships, and tennis as a whole after my visit there. I am hardly a tennis aficionado, and while I will sometimes tune into a few of the matches during a major tournament, I find that after my visit to Wimbledon I am not only anticipating this year’s tournament even more, I find that I am wanting to follow (and even attempt to play) the sport more than I did before.