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Sport Heritage: A Current Assessment

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The study of sport heritage has come a long way.

When I first began researching this topic fifteen years ago, it seemed that sport heritage and its many variations – including sports museums, heritage-based sport tourism, preservation and heritage recognition of sporting venues, heritage sporting events and the like – was receiving limited research attention. Sport historians would occasionally write about museums, tourism scholars would suggest that sport nostalgia might be something examine in greater detail, and geographers might note the use of heritage in stadia, but it wasn’t a particularly deep or coherent body of knowledge.

I look at where we are now and I am amazed!

I think part of this has come from many different scholars from a variety of fields realizing that many forms of popular culture, including sport, are important in revealing something about ourselves, our pasts, and our current culture. Sport is no longer the ugly stepchild of heritage. I recall when I was working at a historic village in the 1990s and asked to develop sport-based public programming (primarily involving cricket, which was a popular pastime in the era we were representing). I was told that sport wasn’t “particularly serious” and that we ought to focus our interpretive efforts on “serious issues and topics.” I think the fact that sport is becoming a topical mainstay of historic markers, of preservation activities, of tourism development, and of permanent museum exhibitions is an important development.

I think there has also been a broader engagement from traditional academic disciplines such as history, geography, archaeology, and anthropology to engage with heritage more generally, and sport heritage in particular. While I used to regularly hear from scholars that heritage was little more than “fake history,” there is now I believe a broader understanding that this idea of heritage – how, why, and by whom the past is used in the present – is something we need to understand. This is not to suggest that heritage is “good” – in fact, the entire purpose of critical heritage studies is to understand and reveal which voices are given priority and which are marginalized and why – but rather that an understanding of heritage in sport is a way of engaging with the many reasons the sporting past is created and mobilized in the present. Furthermore, the idea that sport heritage in its many forms is something that many sport historians, sport geographers, and others see as something that is important to understand has been a significant and, I believe, a positive change for the field.

It has also been great to see scholars engage with specific aspects of sport heritage. Topics such as sports museums, sports venues, and heritage sport tourism have received the bulk of research attention, but the work of scholars like Joel Pinson to examine sport heritage events in depth has been a welcome development.

The development of numerous organizations that link scholars with sport heritage topics and issues has also been welcome. While organization such as ISHA have been around for decades and are integral to the continued maintenance of sport heritage for the public, recent work by organizations such as the Sporting Memories Foundation, who use sport heritage resources such as archives and museums to address issues of dementia and loneliness, Sporting Heritage, who advocate on behalf of sports museums in the UK, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, who have been integral in the preservation of historic sports venues in the US, and ICOMOS, who recently recognized sport as an important part of heritage conservation, are all welcome developments to sport heritage scholarship and understanding in the public sphere.

Finally, the connections between scholars who share an interest in sport heritage, sport history, and sport culture has become more robust in recent years, developed in large part through Twitter. As a sport heritage scholar, I have learned a tremendous amount from sport scholars in a variety of fields in large part because we have “connected” on Twitter. In fact, as I was perusing the conference schedule for next month’s NASSH conference in Winnipeg, I realized just how many scholars I “knew” because I became familiar with their work through social media. Perhaps most notably, the excellent work by the group of scholars involved in the Sport in American History blog and website has not only engaged sport heritage scholars, but has engaged in “real world” topics and demonstrated the important role of the sporting past in contemporary debates.

There is still much work to do in sport heritage research, and many places scholarship can go (those thoughts are for a future blog, perhaps). There are also many more ways in which scholars from a variety of disciplines, as well as public agencies and other interested parties, can go with this field. However, I think it is important to pause for a moment and realize just how far this research area has developed.


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