How historians view museums: Hall of Fame tells a tactile tennis tale

How historians view museums: Hall of Fame tells a tactile tennis tale

By choice and design, you are entering tennis history, a bounce around the sport’s saga akin to occupying a pinball machine.

There it is, in canary yellow and red, the Sugar Daddy jacket worn by Bobby Riggs when he played Billie Jean King in their 1973 Battle of the Sexes match. Across the room, a color promotional poster from the ‘50s, featuring Jack Kramer’s barnstorming pro tour. Head in another direction and watch video highlights of great points played by Venus and Serena Williams, Roger Federer, Fred Perry, Martina Navratilova, Althea Gibson, John McEnroe and more. Now, off to France and a glance at the Four Musketeers, the quartet of French greats who dominated tennis in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s.  

By choice and design, you have entered tennis history, a bounce around the sport’s saga akin to occupying a pinball machine. You are walking through the International Tennis Hall of Fame (ITHF), trekking through time and place to take in the kind of tactile sensations only a museum can offer—an experience of head and heart, eyes and the ears.

“In a lot of museums, you have what’s known as material culture,” says Patricia Hills, Professor Emerita of American and African American art at Boston University. “You see how that moves one back to an era, in some ways as a memento that’s cast into the human brain.” 

And in turn, those visual sensations add much. “A museum can create a visceral, physical, immediate connection to our lives and the lives before us,” says Roland De Wolk, a historian and author of the book, American Disruptor: The Scandalous Life of Leland Stanford. “You could read about these things, but seeing is also a marvelous thing,” says Sheldon Rothblatt, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of California at Berkeley. “The visual is another source of knowledge. It’s experiential.” 

AP Photo

Beyond mere representation of objects, museums such as the ITHF offer an interpretative, narrative dimension. “It’s like a movie or a book,” says David Lubin, Charlotte C. Weber Professor of Art at Wake Forest University. “Somebody is producing an experience and asking you to come along for the ride.”

While museums that focus strictly on fine arts such as painting and sculpture obtain materials from both known and unknown sources, a venue that focuses on sports will most frequently showcase its notables. According to Rothblatt, “People who go to museums have the chance to learn about the history of the game, about its origins and how it developed, about their heroes.”

Historians also value the way museums aid their own efforts. “Great museums have collections and archival material that they make accessible,” says De Wolk. “That gives us the chance to tell our stories.”

Certainly that was true in a major way for Eric Allen Hall, an Associate Professor of History at Northern Illinois University who wrote the 2014 book, Arthur Ashe: Tennis and Justice in the Civil Rights Era and is currently working on another about the 1973 King-Riggs match and its meaning within that decade’s culture wars. “Most athletes don’t maintain archives or have papers they donate to libraries,” says Hall. “When you write about an athlete, you have to build your own library. If you go to a place like the Hall of Fame, they’ll have a lot of things all in one place. They have the widest of collection of tennis books you could imagine. It’s an incredible timesaver. The Hall of Fame also served as a middleman in helping me connect with various folks, including a number of scholars.”  

“Millions of people are fascinated by sports,” says De Wolk. “Sports is a code for the way we socialize. Museums are places that help tell that story, about how we survive and how we thrive.”

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