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Last year on this blog I wrote about sensing sport heritage, that is to say that there is a particular form of sensuality associated with sport heritage which is more than just seeing or touching a sporting place or artefact. Many heritages, as we know, are more personal in nature and link to individual pasts and memories, particularly from childhood. Things like smell and taste are part of our sporting pasts, and can take us back to particular sporting experiences. One of my students, for example, recently related a story about how drinking hot chocolate immediately reminded her of being at a hockey rink in her home in Vermont. For her, hot chocolate will always be linked to winters at the rink, and she found that it triggered a very specific form of nostalgia for her.
Perhaps less specific than links to specific senses are the associations of sports with the natural calendar; that there is an almost visceral connection between seasons and particular sports. Of course, particular sports must be played at particular times of the year, although with our ability to control and create artificial environments, weather can be eliminated or controlled in sporting environments in many cases. No, this is to say that watching or participating in certain sports simply belong to the wider heritage of a particular season; that certain sports simply belong at particular times of year. Of course, we may simply be conditioned to expect that particular sports belong at certain times of the year – what is commonly called institutional seasonality. American football is associated with the Fall, and though it feels as though it ought to be associated with leaves and cooler temperatures and autumn holidays like Thanksgiving, the institutional structure of it simply puts it at a certain time of year. Football could, of course, just as easily be played in the spring – but, because of its institutional structure, we associate the sport with the broader markers of the season. Other sports, like baseball, have – in a sense – a dual season – as Ken Burns says (and to paraphrase), baseball gives us the promise of spring and the harsh realities of fall. And, yet, there is something wholly appropriate about the traditions associated with Opening Day in baseball – normally one of the most anticipated days in the American sporting calendar – in large part because of the promise of spring renewal. Similarly, I have friends and colleagues who adore October baseball, not only because it is the playoffs but because the feel of the games are part of the tradition; that summer has clearly past, and winter is on the horizon, but the playoffs occupy that beautiful liminal space in-between. As a colleague said to me earlier this month, “it just smells like October baseball.” Baseball may even have a third season, the offseason where many of the moves and transactions take place, which – associating it with cold, winter nights – is called the “hot stove” which “calls up images of baseball fans gathering around a hot stove during the cold winter months, discussing their favorite baseball teams and players.”
A few years back, I had a paper published about the development of community league hockey rinks in Edmonton. Although the paper was largely a historical look at gender and recreation, the paper was – in part – framed around the winter-based tropes that are part and parcel of the outdoor hockey experience. Of course, cold, winter weather is necessary to have outdoor hockey but, of course, the rink and the season associated with this sporting practice are part of broader identities. I liberally quoted from both academic and popular sources that framed the rink as, in part, “a key signifier of our national claims on winter and northernness, of our identity as a wholesome, hardy people. Rosy- cheeked children play shinny against a prairie sky, a city skyline, a ridge of pines. Cold winds are vanquished by the swoosh and cut of a blade, the thwack of a frozen puck on a stick. A national fairy tale.” In this, the sport cannot be separated from the season; they are both part and parcel of the traditions and heritages of certain times of year.
Of course, like any heritage, the linking of sport and particular times of year are contextual and, perhaps, driven by media discourses. The infamous – and often parodied – introduction of The Masters golf tournament by Jim Nantz has constructed and solidified an impression of spring in the South. Of course, in the global media age, many of these impressions of particular times of year are mobile, and may resonate with people who have never directly experienced these conditions – but feel attached and attracted to them, nevertheless. Growing up in Canada, the outdoor rink was simply part of who we were – though, now, through the proliferation of outdoor hockey events, many fans may now see these kinds of environments as part of their heritage too – even if they are relatively foreign to them.
However, we ought to consider these broader environments – seasons, temperature, and weather – as part of sport heritage. In many cases, they are as important in creating and constructing the sporting past as buildings and artefacts.
The College Football Hall of Fame (CFHF) in Atlanta, Georgia (relocated from South Bend, Indiana in 2014) is, perhaps, best described as a more a place of worship than a museum. Of course, most sports halls of fame are more about veneration than education for a variety of reasons. However, the College Football Hall of Fame takes this approach to a new level, as it very much is about experiencing and celebrating the meanings, traditions, and legacies of college football. There are, relative to the size of the museum, very few artefacts, and the displays – while familiar to most contemporary museum patrons – are less about sacred treasures and more about reliving and celebrating the past and present of the sport. In fact, most of the collection – including the inductees themselves, as well as the many sights and sounds of college football – are entirely digital. Even more than that, they are personally curated based on your college football affiliation.
To the uninitiated, college football in the United States involves – in theory – amateur competitions between institutes of higher education. However, the scale, scope, pageantry, and money (particularly for the coaches, administrators, broadcasters, sponsors, and many athletics programs) involved in college football are entirely professional. Different regions and conferences will have different football cultures – from styles of play to tailgating traditions. In addition, there are hundreds of college football teams throughout the United States – from internationally known programs like Notre Dame, Alabama, and Ohio State who fill 90,000 seat stadiums and attract millions of dollars in support, through to small division two and three programs which have limited spectatorship and financial support. Indeed, the challenge of a CFHF is that is has to be both general – in terms of representing the whole of college football – while also being specific to the recognizable teams, games, and athletes.
The CFHF experience begins with a “log-in” procedure where your information – and fan affiliation – are recorded, both to personally curate your experience (each visitor receives a lanyard to wear that allows for swiping at interactive stations along the way) as well as collect visitor information – including contact information. Most visitors view a 10 minute video that provides visitors something of the experience of a college game day at a large stadium and university. Visitors can then view some of the famous trophies from college football, including the Heisman Trophy (awarded annually to the top player in college football). A large part of the museum space is dedicated to fan traditions, such as tailgating and team fight songs, and there is also a section on college football bands and cheer teams. Visitors then proceed through a section about college football coaches, training regiments for college football, the evolution of college football equipment, college football rivalries, and famous college football broadcasts. The one section that comes close to a broader social history is a small display about historically black colleges and universities, as well as a small display about “service” college football programs from the armed forces.
The top floor of the CFHF is the actual hall of fame itself – which is entirely digital – and a section about players who have gone on to great careers outside of football. Finally, there is a large, indoor practice-type facility where visitors can try their football skills before exiting through the gift shop and back into Atlanta’s Olympic Plaza.
The basic narrative of the CFHF could be boiled down to “College football is great, and it has created great games, great champions, and great men – both on and off the field.” I wasn’t expecting anything different, nor is it really set up to do anything different than celebrate college football. Again, most halls of fame aren’t particularly interested in broader social or political issues, and a visitor is not going to find much about race, gender, economic, or health issues at the CFHF. In other words, it does what it says on the tin, and is unapologetic about it. And, judging by the crowds that were there the day we visited, it is an unabashed crowd-pleaser and, it would seem, people broadly enjoy the experience.
Of course, I believe this rather hagiographic approach is – broadly speaking, and not just for the CFHF – limiting. I think there is room for places like this to be, in the terms of the new museology, forums and not just sites of worship. And, I think that forum approach need not be just about some of the broader issues in college football and university athletics, but can be celebratory as well. From what I could see, there isn’t much space for temporary exhibits, nor did there appear to be any form of public, live interpretation or other form of programming. I think this is limiting, both in terms of the broad content and presentation of the CFHF, but also its broader appeal. In many respects, once you’ve “done” the CFHF, there are not many reasons to go back – at least for several years. It is possible that repeat visitation isn’t one of their major goals, and given that the CFHF is in the tourist district of Atlanta, right near the stadium that hosts numerous college football games that attract visiting fans, it may not need to attract regular repeat visitors. In some ways, it is set up to visit every three to five years, which may entirely meet their mandate. However, I’m just not sure there is much room to grow or change its galleries, and offer something new to the annual visitor.
One of the other aspects that was pointed out to me – and one that I may have overlooked otherwise – was that the focus of the CFHF really is the “big time” college football programs, particularly from the South. Working at Clemson, we are one of those big-time Southern programs, so it all was instantly recognizable to me. However, I could understand how a college football fan from a smaller school or, say, a west coast university might not necessarily recognize the depiction of the sport and its traditions. I would also suggest that the digital approach, though interesting and interactive, also had its issues. Despite it being only two years old, many of the interactive displays were already showing some wear-and-tear, and several were down for maintenance. Furthermore, I found it difficult to find information not related to Clemson. While the personal curatorship was an interesting approach, it was a bit more challenging to find out about other athletes, games, and programs.
As a visitor, I found it enjoyable enough, but I also have the real-deal of a big time college football program just steps from my office. I think it is a site that would appeal to both the dedicated fan and, possibly, might be of interest to someone wanting an introduction to the sport. In some ways, I could see it appealing to foreign visitors as a way of having an immersive American football experience on non-game days and in the off-season. As a heritage scholar, it is very much a corporate museum – a football museum celebrating football as a self-contained phenomenon. In other words, there wasn’t much about a broader context for developments in the sport and its traditions. The influence of corporate sponsorships were also a bit invasive (Kia branding throughout the tailgating exhibit, for example) and, I felt, detracted from the experience. Finally, if we are to understand heritage as the “present use of the past,” the CFHF celebrates all that is good about the college football experience, perhaps to mask the myriad of issues the sport currently faces – concussions and other health issues, sexual assaults committed by players and ignored by athletic and university administration, players’ labour issues, including unionization and pay, and the fact that college football coaches and administrators are almost always the highest paid employees on campus, to name but a few.
It goes without saying that, for most sports entities, heritage is an asset. The past – particularly a glorious heritage or a heritage that induces nostalgia – can be an excellent marketing tool, and an avenue for commodification through souvenirs, events, and other experiences like fantasy camps. Specifically, sports like baseball and cricket have traded off of their heritage, positioning themselves as timeless cultural entities that are intimately tied to the past. Obviously, not all sporting pasts are glorious, noteworthy, or particularly positive but, more often than not, heritage is something that sports entities tend to embrace.
However, Cathal Kelly in the Globe & Mail recently argues that the NFL in particular runs from its past; that it is a forward looking league to the point that it almost denies its history and heritage. His argument appears to hold water, specifically that the NFL’s past is full of broken players who, in the large scheme of things, are almost infinitely replaceable. Sure, there are sometimes memorable players and teams but, by and large, the NFL is a league entirely focused on the present and future, and that the past plays little role in the way the league operates. Heritage, to the NFL, is not an asset.
A closer examination might be that heritage is used differently by the NFL than it is other leagues. In sports like baseball, cricket, golf, and tennis, there are masters leagues and competitions, and that the sports – though difficult – did not render ex-athletes incapacitated. This is not to say that the NFL doesn’t use its former and retired players in terms of promotion – this past weekend’s Super Bowl demonstrated that – and that it does broadly market events like Hall of Fame weekend in August. Rather, there is a knowing element – both by the league and the public – that football is a deeply damaging game, and that the men who played it often no longer resemble who they once were. Talking about the “glorious heritage” of the NFL is to embrace how deeply damaging the sport was, and continues to be. This is not to say that other football leagues haven’t openly marketed heritage – the Canadian Football League’s “This is Our League” campaign positioned the Canadian code of football as a distinctive form of cultural nationalism – but for the NFL, constantly reminding the public of the past only fuels some of the issues of the present.
That said, the NFL does embrace an element of continuity – not neccessarily in comparison with the past but, rather, as an entity that always was and always will be. It’s heritage is that endures. And, while Kelly’s argument is certainly convincing, it is worth noting that all sports – to borrow from this book – have excluded pasts. Baseball actively runs from it’s drug and steroid past. Cricket runs from its racial politics. Rugby runs from a legacy of class division. Soccer runs from its fan violence. Hockey – as Keith Olbermann explains – markets a fictional foundational myth. In fact, all institutions have pasts that are excluded for a variety of reasons, from politics to culture to plain old ignorance. Certainly, the ways in which the NFL excludes some of its past – or, at the very least, is uninterested in it – is unique, but it is hardly unheard-of.
The question then becomes not whether sports entities exclude particular pasts, but what pasts are excluded and why? Here, Kelly’s argument is important – “..the NFL – alone among all the sports leagues in the world – has no appetite for reflection. With good reason, no league is as frightened of its own past.” Heritage – or, at least, particular forms of heritage – undermine rather than enhance the NFL. For other sports, heritage is an asset – though, again, only particular heritages are touted, embraced, and commodified.
We tend to think of sport heritages as benign, and quite often they are. However, what the NFL’s reaction to its heritage tells us is that sport heritage can, in particular circumstances, also be a threat. Excluded pasts are often not just unflattering or embarrassing, they can also be dangerous.
There are moments in our lives that we anticipate will be memorable – graduations, weddings, the birth of children, the death of those close to us, and so on. We typically take steps to plan these events, both from a practical standpoint but also because we know that these events will be milestones; moments that either we want to remember and cherish (particularly if these are positive events) or know that we will remember, even if they are painful.
More collectively, memories tend to be reactive. That is to say, an event (normally a shocking or unexpected one) happens which becomes a memory; a “where were you?” moment like September 11, 2001. Certainly, in sport, there are unexpected moments – victories (or defeats) that will be recalled and rehashed for decades to come. However, sport also does often offer the opportunity to plan a memory, knowing that a particular moment will likely form a part of a collective biography. As I wrote about last spring, there is a tendency to form an “anticipatory sport heritage” whereby we rapidly assess the impact of a sporting event either in its immediate aftermath or, at times, before the event has even happened. As such, some events are thought to be “memorable” before they’ve event occurred.
This evening is the National College Football Championship, played between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Clemson Tigers. As a faculty member at Clemson, we were provided instructions by our Provost – Dr. Bob Jones – on how to academically approach the following couple of days, knowing that many students, staff, and faculty would either venture to Arizona for the game or, at the very least, be distracted (if not a little fatigued) whether the Tigers won or lost the game. In the Provost’s words from an email sent to all faculty, staff, and students on January 2, he notes:
“A national football championship is, for most of us, a once in a lifetime opportunity to experience a key part of American higher education culture. This is true for students, staff, and faculty. It is a special opportunity. We have an obligation to facilitate participation, so long as it does not diminish the core academic mission of the university.”
Of course, it is quite impossible to say whether this event that (at the time of writing) will be “once in a lifetime”, or that we can instantly assess its significance in our own lives or the legacy of our university.
But, we can probably guess that it will be important, regardless of the result. Perhaps if Clemson loses, and perhaps wins in the coming seasons, the “once in a lifetime” will be contextualized in terms of an era of success. Or if they lose, and never return to the Championship, the memory will be bittersweet. If Clemson wins, perhaps it will be something that the Clemson community will view as an integral part of its history; something to be shared, recalled, and nostalgized for years to come.
One of the aspects I will be interested to see, should the Tigers be victorious, is the Geography of Celebration. That is to say, which areas in or near Clemson become the focus of public celebrations? I expect that it will probably be the College Avenue area, which is the main street of Clemson leading up to Bowman Field and the “entrance” to the university:
Most of the bars in Clemson are on College Avenue, and there is the icon of the Tillman Hall/Old Main building at the end of the street. However, there is not much at this location that is specifically related to football in particular (although the field itself, historically, was once the football field). There is nothing like Auburn University’s Toomer’s Corner in this area, which has become a part of football lore and tradition:
Both are near the College Avenue area and, in the case of Howard’s Rock in particular, are symbolic of Clemson football. As such, it will be interesting to see if there are several different celebration locations in Clemson itself, or if they ultimately meld into one particular place. Added to this geography, however, is the fact that the largest remote viewing party is at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, approximately 30 miles from Clemson University. It is possible, then, that the celebration will be quite diffuse.
Of course, with such a large area – and several different iconic locations – it is possible that, win or lose, there will be a large area to monitor and potentially police. Many sports celebrations, or reactions to defeat, have sparked antisocial behaviours, most notably in Vancouver in 2011:
Perhaps it is no coincidence then that Clemson’s President, Dr. Jim Clements, sent the following email this morning to the entire university:
“Whether you plan to watch in Arizona, at a viewing party or from the comfort of home, please remember that we are all representatives of our great university. I’m glad that the Clemson family knows that just like our student-athletes and coaches, we win or lose with class, dignity and good sportsmanship.”
Of course, one hopes that such incidents won’t occur. However, the idea that we must plan for many eventualities does have to take place. Furthermore, in the age of mobile technologies, celebrations (or any form of public gathering) can be dynamic; they can form and disperse quite quickly.
From a heritage standpoint, there is something to be said that many public celebrations tend to take place at or near icons of place (many, if not most of which, could broadly be considered heritage). It is also interesting to see which icons are “chosen” as sites of celebration, and for what reasons. In Clemson’s case, I imagine that the College Avenue/Bowman Field area will be chosen in large part because it is central, well-known, has amenities (mainly bars), and, perhaps, because it is next to an icon and symbol of the university. However, it will be interesting to see that, if tonight and the coming days, other symbols and icons – such as Howard’s Rock – become the sites of a broader, collective celebration. Similarly, if they lose, which icons become the sites of mourning and why?
The city of Liverpool has numerous heritage-based claims to fame. It’s role in immigration, shipping, and transportation is well known. Of course, it is also home to the most famous band of all time, The Beatles. However, it is also a major centre for sport heritage – and, as a recent trip to Merseyside revealed – the city’s sporting past is well represented through museums, tours, and other heritage-based experiences.
Of course, Liverpool’s sport heritage begins – most notably and publicly – with the city’s football teams. Liverpool FC is, far and away, the most broadly and widely represented – at least in the tourist areas in the city centre and at the Albert Dock. In fact, there is a dedicated hop on/off Liverpool FC tour bus that runs between the Albert Dock and the team’s home stadium, Anfield.
The bus runs all day (with the team’s famous anthem, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, blaring from the bus’ speakers). En route to Anfield, the guide provides a thirty minute commentary about the team’s background, as well as it’s historical connections and rivalry with Everton, before arriving at the gates of Anfield.
In speaking with our guide, Paul, he mentioned that the tour bus has been running for a little over a year and has been immensely successful. Specifically, he noted that the bus was initally only going to run during the summer peak tourist season, but that demand pushed it to a year-round venture. It should be noted that my colleague and I were the only patrons on the bus during our tour, though Paul mentioned that this was quite unusual. He did say, however, that as Anfield was undergoing extensive renovations, the stadium tours were somewhat limited and they did notice a dip in visitors this summer. That said, Liverpool boasts over 500 million global supporters and, as such, there seems to be the potential for a steady supply of sport-based pilgrims. It is also fascinating – and, as far as I know, unique – to have a city tour and tour company dedicated to a specific sport club. Indeed, this appears to signal a growing demand – at least in certain places – for sport heritage experiences and particular forms of heritage sport tourism. Places like Anfield appear to be able to welcome a variety of visitors who wish to “make a day” out of experiencing the club’s heritage and culture. Arriving at the stadium, tourists could take a standard stadium tour, a tour with an ex-player (demonstrating the links that both myself and Sean Gammon of the University of Central Lancashire have explored linking sport heritage to “living” artefacts like ex-athletes), as well as visit the team museum, take their picture next to several team statues and plaques, visit a large team shop, and dine at a team-themed restaurant (complete with team and player artefacts adorning the walls).
Just across Stanley Park from Anfield resides Goodison Park, home of Everton FC. Although the two squads compete in the same league, and the stadiums reside steps from one another, they feel like a world away – at least in terms of touristic support. Everton feels like a local club, whereas Liverpool appears to have much larger global ambitions. Similarly, a tourist could spend much of a day at Anfield, whereas Goodison Park did not offer a stadium tour and had a small shop across the road . In fact, my colleague and I appeared to be the only people visiting the stadium. That said, there is still a very prominent representation of the club’s history and heritage around the stadium. For example, the entire circumference of the stadium is ringed with a club timeline, highlighting the club’s major victories, players, and accomplishments.
The main gates to Goodison Park also featured a statue of Everton’s greatest and most beloved player, Dixie Dean.
While the heritage experience at Everton was much more muted, and less public, that at Liverpool, there was a strong appeal to it as well. In many respects, it was a heritage for the faithful; for people who already loved and supported the club, rather than as primarily a commodity for a large international fan base. As complicated as this word is, it felt more real and, in that I suppose, that give it a greater sense of authenticity.
The importance of both Liverpool and Everton football clubs are also prominent in the Museum of Liverpool’s popular culture gallery. In particular, the events of the Hillsborough disaster, where 96 Liverpool supporters were killed at a match in Sheffield in 1989, are described and commemorated in the gallery, and specifically how the two local rival clubs came together in remembrance.
However, the gallery represents much more than football, demonstrating the variety of different sports, pastimes, and athletes that make up the city’s sporting heritage. From horse racing, to athletics, to boxing, the gallery shows just how many different sports are “played in Liverpool.”
Indeed, one of the surprising elements of the gallery are the variety of different sports played in Liverpool and how they have shaped different parts of the city. Perhaps most surprising is that the city has a significant baseball heritage stretching back several generations.
Many cities seem to hide their sport heritage, or don’t actively represent or promote it, perhaps viewing it as less serious than other cultural markers. However, Liverpool is a perfect example of how sport cultures can be embraced, and exist beside – and even enhance – other heritage attractions. Indeed, having the Liverpool FC bus or the city museum’s popular culture gallery displayed next to Beatles exhibits, or contemporary arts galleries, or a slavery museum simply demonstrates the broad heritage palate of the community. Tourists and locals can be both interested in a Jackson Pollock exhibition AND maritime heritage AND architecture AND sport. Liverpool is a great example how these different topics can co-exist in telling the stories of a community, and other cities should look to their example to see how this can be accomplished.
When I first began my sport heritage research about a dozen years ago, I was told on repeated occasions – normally by those based in Britain – that sport heritage was strictly an “American” thing. While certainly, at that time, things like sports halls of fame, stadium tours, and the like were more prevalent in the USA, the idea that sport heritage wasn’t really a part of the heritage narrative in Britain seemed farfetched to say the least. Indeed, now it appears that acknowledging, celebrating, and commodifying the many sport heritages of regions, communities, and teams across Britain are a central part of contemporary heritage narratives, particularly in England’s northwest.
Earlier this month while attending the Transnational Dialogues in Cultural Heritage in Liverpool (sport heritage in Liverpool is immense and very public, and will receive a dedicated blog post in the coming weeks), I had the opportunity to experience many sites and locations associated with the sporting heritage of the northwest of England. Some of these sites are famous for being famous, as it were, some featured sporting practices that are traditional to the region, and some are more conscious of their touristic role.
The first site “visited” (in reality, only a quick drive past) was the Royal Lytham & St Annes Golf Club, one of the courses on the (British) Open rotation, having hosted the tournament eleven times and, most recently, in 2012. There isn’t much in the way of public visitation to the site and, had it not been for my local hosts, I probably would never have been able to find the club. I was not the only tourist lurking outside of the club’s main gates but, as the sign below indicates, it’s not really a club that welcomes visitors in any case.
Indeed, many sport heritages are not really meant for broad, touristic consumption – or, perhaps, are not self-conscious of a touristic gaze. Such was the case when attending a Rugby League match in Wigan. In fact, despite being a sport with a lengthy and distinguished heritage, rugby league has the feel of a sport that is very recent, perhaps as a reaction to making rugby union “more exciting” in the same way that T20 cricket was set up as an antidote to test cricket. However, it is a very traditional sport in England’s northwest and, despite the fact that game presentation (such as the music, etc) had more in common with, say, an NFL or NBA game, there were numerous markers around the stadium indicating the club – and sport’s – history.
I suspect I may have been one of the few foreign spectators at the match (won by Wigan over rival Leeds with a last second penalty kick); unlike other sports like football, rugby league hasn’t attracted vast global attention and, as such, the atmosphere at the match was very local and, dare I say, authentic.
Another community that appeared to publicly embrace and proudly display their sporting heritage was Preston. Specifically, reminders of the town’s home football club – Preston North End (or PNE) – and their most famous player, Tom Finney, were present throughout my brief stay. PNE are one of the oldest football clubs in the world, their home stadium, Deepdale, was the oldest football ground still in use and, for many years, the stadium housed the National Football Museum (the museum has since relocated to Manchester). However, for a club that has been in some of the lower divisions of English football for some years, and have not won many major trophies since before the Second World War, the team appears to welcome quite a few visitors, particularly at a well stocked team shop, through a stadium tour, and via various heritage markers across the stadium grounds. For a town like Preston, which appears unlikely to host many tourists, PNE appears to be one of the community’s star attractions.
The name of PNE’s most famous player, Tom Finney, is also present throughout Preston’s city centre, most notably at the University of Central Lancashire’s sports centre which also has a wonderful interpretation display about his career, his life in Preston, and his contributions to the community
While these examples do not come close to representing the entirety of sport heritages in England’s northwest, they are indicative that sport heritage is not just an “American” thing. Certainly, the role that sport has played in the history, culture, and development of Britain is immense, and it is wonderful to see that many communities – particularly those like Preston – acknowledge the important contemporary role of the sporting past.
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.
In their foundational text, The Geography of Heritage, professors 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?