Hiding in Plain Sight: Why Sporting Heritage Matters
It took a while for the penny to drop for me. Like many folks in the heritage sector, I am emphatically ‘not sporty’ and wore my disinterest like a badge of honour. School sports day trauma and academic snobbery had combined into a blind prejudice. Because sports aren’t ‘real’ cultural heritage, are they? I doubt I’m alone in my bias, but I’m ashamed that it took me so long to recognise it.
At the other end of the spectrum, sports historians have traditionally tended to focus their attention on biographies of the sporting greats (which often border on the hagiographic) or fixate on the minutiae of rule changes and technical developments. This has changed a good deal over the past twenty years with more research into the social and cultural context and impact of sport, and more input from other disciplines such as sociology and anthropology.
Running parallel to this is the notion that sport somehow stands apart from society. This glorious isolation is deeply embedded in our culture and rooted in Victorian ideals of athleticism and morality – sport expresses the purest form of physical human attainment and should remain untainted by base concerns. How often have we heard modern pundits solemnly intone that ‘politics have no place in sport’?
Sport and heritage are never neutral: nobody gets a ‘free pass’
Sport is an integral part of our shared past – reflecting and influencing broader societal changes. It can also provide a gateway into conversations around colonialism, class, immigration, gender, attitudes to the body and many other aspects of our shared social history. Sport and play are essential, vital forms of human expression and make a valuable and important contribution to our cultures. Like art or music, there is a universality that can transcend cultural divides and help us tap into new audiences, challenge stereotypes and break down barriers. The scope and potential of sporting heritage is vast.
Once you start to look closely, sport is everywhere. It’s in our archives – kirk session records complaining of football games in graveyards, suffragettes covertly distributing literature at roller skating rinks, and rowing rulebooks that forbade manual labourers (i.e. the working classes) from joining amateur clubs. It’s in our national museums and galleries and proudly displayed on the walls of schools and sports clubs up and down the country. It’s in our street names – ‘Curling Crescent’ and ‘Bowling Green Road’ and it’s there in the landscapes we inhabit, the buildings we pass by every day and the ground under our feet.
Traditional definitions of what heritage is (museums, castles and elite histories) and who it’s for (mostly the white middle-classes) have loosened and broadened over the past decade. While tourism and education are still the dominant drivers within the sector, community-led heritage initiatives have begun to challenge the status quo, and interest in sporting heritage is growing rapidly. Sport, along with heritage and creative industries, is now formally recognised by the United Nations as a key driver for creating and supporting sustainable and resilient communities.
“Sport has a crucial role to play in the efforts of the United Nations to improve the lives of people around the world. Sport builds bridges between individuals and across communities, providing a fertile ground for sowing the seeds of development and peace.”
Wilfried Lemke, Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on Sport for Development and Peace.
What Can Sporting Heritage Do For Your Community?
There are several innovative projects currently underway across Scotland. They cover a wide range of different themes and perspectives, and while the source material may lie in the past, the outcomes and goals are very much rooted in the present. They use sporting heritage as a vehicle to address current needs within their communities and to engage new audiences in creative ways.
I’ve highlighted a few below and will discuss our project at the West Boathouse in more detail in later posts.
- – Helping asylum seekers and recent migrants: Recent excavations in search of the world’s first international football stadium by Archaeology Scotland in collaboration with Hampden Bowling Club teamed archaeologists with local volunteers, asylum seekers and new migrant groups. As well as establishing that the first Hampden football ground was indeed located on the site of Hampden Bowling Club, the process of archaeological research and excavation was used as a vehicle to help new migrants practice their English, acclimate to a new place and meet new people.
- – Supporting Mental Health and Reducing Social Isolation: Sporting Memories Scotland and the Sports Heritage Scotland both use sporting memories and object handling to tackle dementia, depression and social isolation. They run clubs and activities that bring together younger and older generations of fans, former players and family members to talk about sport and reminisce, with the aim of improving mental and physical well-being.
- – Tackling Gender Bias: Play Like A Lassie is a collaborative community editing project run by the West Boathouse project and Caledonian University. It is aimed at tackling the systemic gender bias in Wikipedia entries relating to women’s sport in Scotland and celebrating their contributions. We have trained up 15 new editors (10 women and 5 men) who are working to research and create new articles to amplify women’s stories on Wikipedia.
- – Connecting Communities through Activism: Govanhill Baths is a Category-B Listed swimming baths and steamie (wash-house) in Govanhill, Glasgow. When it was closed in 2001, the local community staged a protest, including a 140-day long sit in – the longest continuous occupation of a public building in British history. Since then, Govanhill Baths Community Trust have embraced a holistic vision of restoration and regeneration, with heritage and community at its heart. The Trust delivers wellbeing, arts, upcycling, archive & heritage projects. The building will reopen as a public swimming pool and health and well-being hub, serving the most diverse community in Scotland, where over 80 languages are spoken. The history of the building and those who swam there is layered and intertwined with stories of protest and community action. These will be showcased in an accessible-for-all community archive, museum & reference library.
Taking A Punt on Sporting Heritage Collections
A key part of the West Boathouse project is working through the heritage collections of the two resident rowing clubs – Clydesdale Amateur Rowing Club and Clyde Amateur Rowing Club. Over their combined 320+ year history, both clubs have accumulated a substantial amount of rowing related memorabilia – minute books, photographs, posters, trophies, bits of equipment and a wide range of other material. Very little of this material had previously been recorded, catalogued or shared.
Some clubs actively use their collections to engage with their members and visitors, and others are unsure what to do with it all. These small sports clubs face many challenges and pressures – declining memberships, decaying buildings, poor accessibility and facilities and a general lack of capacity and resources. They also serve as vital community hubs and significant green spaces in our increasingly built-up city environment.
Getting clubs over the ‘fear factor’ when resources are tight is critical. Collections encompass objects and documents, and the professional divisions between ‘archives’ and ‘museums’ can be unhelpful for small groups trying to tackle a mix of the two. We are aiming to find a middle ground, adhering to best practices where possible, but with an emphasis on finding practical and affordable solutions. ‘Do no harm’ should always be our first principle, but this can often lead to ‘do nothing’, a paralysis born out of a fear of doing the wrong thing.
With support and advice from the Scottish Council on Archives, Glasgow Museums, The Sporting Heritage Network and many helpful academics and specialists in sporting heritage, we aim to create a practical resource to help small sports clubs (and other small heritage groups) to see the potential of their collections and share their sporting heritage. We will inevitably stumble along the way, make mistakes and (hopefully) learn from them. We hope you’ll join us on our journey.
- O’Brien, Ged. Played in Glasgow: Charting the Heritage of a City at Play. Edited by Simon Inglis, Malavan Media, 2010.
- Crawford, Elizabeth. “WALKS/Suffrage Stories: The Suffragette 1911 Census Boycott: Where and What Was the Aldwych Skating Rink?” Woman and Her Sphere, 2012, https://womanandhersphere.com/2012/09/03/suffrage-stories-the-suffragette-1911-census-boycott-where-and-what-was-the-aldwych-skating-rink/?fbclid=IwAR2MfxENCNvJBC5vuxEZOSjMQ9MdvmQq9rI1Wl59Mee_1Yi7quZmj9AyOMY. Accessed 02 03 2022.