As well as providing a location for the most revered sporting paraphernalia, the Australian Sports Museum – one of the few success stories of its kind in the world – also serves as an important lens into the national psyche. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

The story of the Australian Sports Museum

Cathy Freeman with the suit she wore to win gold at the Sydney 2000 Olympics.
Cathy Freeman with the suit she wore to win gold at the Sydney 2000 Olympics.
Credit: Julian Smith / AAP

The Sports Museum of America seemed like a good idea at the time. After all, the United States – a country that has enjoyed so much athletic success, boasted the world’s best leagues in at least four sports and has a culture of serious fandom – had never had a national sports museum (which, incidentally, was the original name for the institution but was dismissed for sounding too state-sanctioned for a country that prides itself on individual liberty).

There were other grounds for optimism. The founders benefited from New York City’s Liberty Bonds, a scheme to revitalise Lower Manhattan with generous tax-free loans after the September 11 terrorist attacks. The museum also found an auspicious location in New York City’s Canyon of Heroes, the stretch of Broadway between the Battery and City Hall where tickertape parades have been held for Winston Churchill, Amelia Earhart, the crew of Apollo 11 and, more recently, the triumphant US women’s soccer team.

Organisers had also brokered deals with at least 60 of the country’s sporting bodies and halls of fame, as well as every major sporting body, to share intellectual property. Individual athletes had lent special items, and the revered Heisman Trophy – awarded to the country’s best college footballer – had finally found a home. This broad success with stakeholders, who can be rather defensive with intellectual property and protective of their own markets, might have had something to do with the museum’s pledge not to delve into sporting scandals or play much of an interpretive role about the cultural influence of sport.

“Stakeholder relationships may also lead to curatorial tension, particularly in an environment where certain stakeholders control access to content,” a recently released paper, “The role of a national sports museum: an ambitious balancing act”, published in Routledge’s Sport in Museums, said. “The SmA [Sports Museum of America], with all its formalised partnerships, ruled out presenting any material critical to any of their stakeholders, noting that ‘we’ve been asked if we intend to deal with the more disparaging parts of sports – steroids and things like that – but we don’t … we’d rather focus on what’s really beautiful and powerful and good’. Whether this decision was driven by curatorial vision or diplomatic pragmatism is outside the authors’ knowledge.”

Almost $100 million was raised and there was an optimistic forecast of one million visitors for its first year. The projections were badly wrong: the Sports Museum of America opened in May 2008 and attracted just 125,000 visitors before its closure in February the next year. It was a dramatic failure and a bitter process of liquidation followed. Organisers blamed the severe recession then roiling up the US, and a poor publicity campaign that left it with very low levels of public recognition.

There were other possible factors, though, that weren’t admitted. Spiralling costs forced ticket prices up, making it one of the more expensive tourist attractions in the city, then there was the preponderance of sport- or club-specific museums in the US that serve as sites of secular pilgrimage – the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York, for instance, or the various club museums housed in stadiums.

I once had a morning in the relatively small city of Louisville, Kentucky – a quick stop during a road trip – and thought I’d escape the bitter cold whipping off the Ohio River by entering a museum. For sports alone, I had a choice between the Kentucky Derby Museum, the Muhammad Ali Center, and the Sluggers baseball bat factory and museum (and these were only the ones I saw).

Meanwhile, the Australian Sports Museum (formerly the National Sports Museum) – housed at the Melbourne Cricket Ground – is one of the world’s only financially viable national sports museums. The article I cited was written by Jed Smith, the manager of the museum, and Helen Walpole, who served as its curator and creative director for a decade until 2020, and had a hand in its major $17 million redesign, which was unveiled, cruelly, just a fortnight before Victoria had its first taste of pandemic restrictions. I spoke with Walpole, and first asked why she thought the museum was so successful.

“Being located at the MCG is a huge part of that,” she says. “The MCG is not in the middle of town, so you don’t have daily foot traffic going past of just general commuters. But you do have hundreds of thousands of sporting fans who would be coming past every weekend, and so we were able to announce ourselves to them. And the site that we’re in is a real site of secular pilgrimage, and we could scoop up visitors of a stadium tour. And being part of the MCG meant we could share in sponsorship – so, large companies that wanted to sponsor the MCG could also be encouraged to sponsor the NSM. The MCG is such an enticing brand, that gave us a lot of commercial security and viability.”

But with this commercial security, I wondered if there was any tension between the museum’s curators and their various corporate stakeholders. As Walpole writes in her essay: “A particular tension exists in that regardless of how critically the NSM inspects these traditions of sportive nationalism, through its very existence as a national monument dedicated to Australia’s sporting history, the NSM plays a role in reinforcing and validating them.”

But she tells me that the museum’s interest in using sport “as a lens” with which to explore and interpret Australian culture generally was endorsed by all stakeholders – and none asked that darker stories be airbrushed away. “We wanted to shift ourselves to being a museum of Australian sporting culture, or a museum of Australian culture, through the lens of sport,” Walpole says. “And so that meant that we were able to behave more like the National Museum or Melbourne Museum and look at social themes and topics, but use sport as our case studies. So we could look at, you know, what our race relations in Australia are like at the moment, and we can pull out stories of on-field racist abuse and how that’s been handled in different sporting organisations. So we could look at how Cathy Freeman was held up as an exemplar, and yet also the struggles that she faced before and after that Sydney Olympics moment. That allowed us, we felt, to take a more critical engagement. [With the redesign] I guess we shifted our remit to being much more about understanding ourselves as a nation.

“There was no pushback from within the organisations that funded us, nor from the sporting bodies themselves. We found that generally they were excited, because we were able to broaden how we were able to tell their stories instead of only focusing on the hero moments, which is what we were limited to before. We always felt that it was really important to be able to look at sporting controversies. And we knew that was something the visitors were really interested in, they were really drawn to it. You’ve got the same nostalgic connection with those darker moments as you do with the hero moments. If you’re a devotee of a club, those things are just as much etched in your soul as your grand final wins, or your premierships and trophies.”

But while the museum was careful not to be aggressively celebratory, and to allow itself a broader remit of cultural interpretation, Walpole says sports museums also necessarily facilitate nostalgia – and they should be places of fun, as well as reflection. She says that much thought went into “layering” the visitor’s experience with elements of sport itself: collaboration and competition. There is the Skyball feature, for example, an attractive and interactive light fixture – “like kick-to-kick but with beams of light”.

“The research we did showed that the principal reason that people visit a museum is to spend time with friends and family, it’s not to learn more about a particular niche topic or interest,” Walpole says. “So when you’re building and designing a museum or an exhibition, you’ve got to kind of be a bit humble and say, ‘Look, actually, my job here is not to be the most important thing in the room, the visitor is the most important thing in the room, the conversation they’re having, the time that they’re having together is most important. And all I can do is give them a context and a prompt.”

Sports curators will often borrow the language of religion to describe the behaviour of fans and museum visitors. There are “relics” (Bradman’s baggy green), and “pilgrimages” to “holy sites” (the MCG). After the death of Shane Warne, his statue outside the MCG became the focal point of public mourning – and the statue’s plinth was crowded with Kookaburra balls, VB stubbies and Winnie Blues. But inside the museum, there was another Warne – a speaking hologram, which was installed well before the legend’s death. Walpole visited about a month later.

“I’ve watched that presentation so many times,” Walpole says. “But it’s incredibly moving to be able to hear that voice from [beyond] the grave. Which is ironic given that the technology that we use is called Pepper’s Ghost. And it is supposed to be quite ghostly. So, I think that’s like a really kind of beautiful memorial, just as much as the statue out the front, and probably will again become a site of pilgrimage. Because of those religious associations that we often find arising between sport and how we seek meaning in our lives.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 9, 2022 as "Pilgrimage’s progress".

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