Ask Michelle Hamilton and she’ll tell you Mustangs sports history at The University of Western Ontario has been more a labour of love, than academic pursuit. But for the last two years, students in her public history program have set out to change that.
For more than a century, much of Mustang sporting history has been tucked away in boxes, closets and rarely entered storerooms across campus and the country. Some parts found a way into the hands of Western archivists and volunteers; other parts were simply tossed out. All that’s not to mention the vast wealth of knowledge, the bulk of the institution’s sporting history, is committed not to paper, but only to the memories of those who played and coached the games.
“People tend to underestimate the historic value of their own stories and memorabilia,” says Hamilton, director of the program in the Department of History.
To preserve Mustang history, the J.P. Metras Sports Museum opened in Alumni Hall. Beginning in 1978, the university’s centennial year, the ‘W’ Club used this room to establish Western’s Sports Hall of Fame. Display cases and photos were mounted to help define the space, and coaches became curators, collecting pictures and changing displays.
Today, roughly 148 Hall of Fame photos line the hallways leading to the museum, where more than 100 pictures are on display between the national championships wall and the Molson Wall of Fame that recognizes Western’s Olympic and Commonwealth Games athletes.
But limits to time and space have always kept the museum from being what organizer hoped it would be.
Enter Hamilton’s public history classes.
Each year, the class identifies a large public history undertaking in partnership with a community organization; for the last two years, they have taken on the museum as that project.
“It’s a real partnership between the people with the knowledge and the History Department,” Hamilton says of the mission of her 12-month program, a department staple since 1986. “That coming-together really creates the momentum.”
Tapping into museum curator Ted Hessel’s unique expertise and insight, the 2009-2010 class began the initial work on cataloguing as many items as possible as well as securing a project space; the 2010-2011 class then started making the artifacts and stories accessible online.
“(The museum) was kind of invisible to the people on campus. In fact, there was no visibility at all,” Hamilton says. “That’s why we thought the website would be so important.”
Thousands of photos, each being scanned in one by one, as well as 300 or so 3-D artifacts, everything from equipment and games balls to legendary London journalist Bob Gage’s novelty whistle and coach/athletics director Metras’ hat, are catalogued in a Thames Hall basement workspace.
Today, the site, metrasmuseum.omeka.net, takes visitors through the people, places, and events that established the university’s athletic tradition.
“It’s outstanding, that’s what it is. I don’t know when I have been so happy,” Hessel says. “This shot in the arm by the History Department just exceeds my greatest dreams.
“We’re eons ahead of where we would have been without their help.”
Historically, much attention has been devoted to the Mustang basketball, football and wrestling teams, as is reflected in the general scope of the collection. Women’s sports, in particular, are under-represented. Most started as inter-faculty or club sports, then branched out decades later into intercollegiate competition. Even then, they were routinely ignored in the sporting press.
Much works remains on the website. Boxes upon boxes sit waiting at Western Archives. And while there is a wealth of material to get to, there are still major gaps in the history.
Researchers would love help filling it in. And they want your help in doing so.
Hamilton’s team welcomes contact from former athletes as well as any artifacts and stories – be they about game exploits or locker room pranks – from their playing days. All add colour and dimension to a proud sports history, Hamilton stresses.
Contact with the team can be made via the ‘Contact Us’ link off the J.P. Metras Sports Museum website.
Visit the J.P. Metras Sports Museum online.