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Sports Museums: Lessons Off the Field

Physics. American History. Women’s Studies. What may sound like an AP class syllabus is actually part of the expanded exhibits and experiences that are gaining prominence in Sports Museums across the country. This departure from focusing only on memorabilia and athletic glory recognizes the importance of the respective sport in a much broader-reaching context. Today’s museums still highlight the spectacular achievements and history of the game but now share the spotlight with new educational programming and experiences that attract new fans and provide educators with a relatable approach to reach students who may be bored in the classroom but engaged on the field. Using interactive STEAM education, sports museums are as likely today to focus a cultural lens on local, national and international history as they are on athletic feats.

STEAM Play Action

Students use math and physics at the San Francisco 49ers Museum EDU Academy

The maxim about “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn” is accurate when you see students and visitors to our San Francisco 49ers EDU Academy, a STEAM-based curriculum located at the San Francisco 49ers Museum. While an 8-year-old may see football greats in the galleries and think it’s ancient history, they spring into action when they discover forces like lift, drag and gravity at work at the EDU Academy. It’s part of the 49ers education initiative which matches gameplay with a different kind of play action in support of Common Core and 21st Century Learning Skills. Biomechanics, aerodynamics, data analytics and social justice are all part of the experience at this innovative sports museum. Our most recent exhibit is The Long Game, which highlights sports icons’ impact on social justice and gender equity. It’s the first stop for students participating in 49ers EDU Academy diversity workshops that often include hands-on participation with the football players themselves. To date, the 49ers EDU Academy has served over 250,000 participants across 89 school districts and counting.

Student tours and groups at The Long Game, an exhibit focused on social justice in sports

Swimming in History

At the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, currently in design, the visitor experience, besides offering immersive moments via a 70-foot-long interactive multi-touch wall, includes a journey through history. Swimming milestones are presented within the context of major civic and historical milestones, relating the sport to the events of the day. Putting record-setting and barrier-breaking achievements alongside the tenor of the times provides a much richer understanding and lasting impression.

The soon-to-be-built Swimming Hall of Fame features immersive experiences highlighting historical events concurrently with swimming milestones

Play like a Girl

The history of women in sport is also an opportunity to tell the story of the women’s movement, the landmark Title IX initiative and the strides toward equity that extend beyond courts and playfields. Throughout the newly renovated Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, the story of advances in equity for women in society, as well as on the basketball court, is presented through a blend of first-person accounts, news reports, historic timelines and video of recent history.

The Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame highlights female players, coaches and historical moments to shed light on women-centered stories in the sport.

Incorporating Local Legends

Raising awareness and adjusting the narrative to be more inclusive is one way that sports museums are expanding their reach. The recently completed Wichita Baseball Museum celebrates that city’s rich minor league baseball legacy, including the compelling story of the barnstorming Negro League Wichita Monrovians and their significant contribution to the Wichita region; the museum hopes to expand that knowledge by hosting future traveling exhibits from the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City. In the meantime, the museum is focused on outreach, visiting schools and hosting student groups to present regional and national history through the sport of baseball.

The Wichita Baseball Museum incorporates local, relevant stories to shed light on cultural side of baseball’s history

Canadian History

At the Canada Sport Hall of Fame, pride of country is a significant component of the story, drawing visitors who may not be sports fans, but had the shared experience of watching milestones of national history from their living rooms, just as millions of other Canadians did. Unified by the national spirit that it’s “not about the name on your back, but the Maple Leaf on your chest,” the Canada Sport Museum celebrates over 56 Olympic sports in which Canada participated at the time of its opening. More than a museum to celebrate figure skating, auto racing, bobsledding or track and field, the Canada Sport Hall of Fame is a celebration of national pride and a shared history.

The Canada Sports Hall of Fame emphasizes national pride to reach and connect with a broader audience of visitors