Sharon Heal

Nice try

Sharon Heal, 07.01.2014
Sharon Heal visits the World Rugby Museum
I don’t mind taking part in sport but I’ve never been big on spectating. Even the Olympics left me a little cold. So a museum about a sport in which I had little existing interest was always going to have to work very hard to engage me.

And so it was that my first museum visit of the year was a wet and windy trudge to Twickenham to see the newly redeveloped and rebranded World Rugby Museum.

It’s difficult to express the excitement and competitiveness of participating in a sport through words and objects. And museums about an activity or performance often face an uphill struggle to convey passion and movement; after all, why look at static displays in a gallery when the real drama is on the pitch or stage?

This dilemma is partially resolved at the World Rugby Museum with plenty of footage from games and with a family-friendly interactive area in the middle of the museum that encourages visitors to try out their skills and ability to determine what type of rugby player they would make.

Sturdy interactives test speed, agility and accuracy, with visitors able to try out scrums, penalty kicks and weaving around the opposing players. As well as being popular with visitors this creates an area of movement and noise in the heart of the museum that is as entertaining for observers as it is for participants.

Visitors can also take a tour of the stadium, which is impressive in its sheer scale although it is hard to imagine the atmosphere of a match day. The changing rooms are also part of the tour, but oddly sterile when you try to imagine the pre-match tension or the post-match mud and ruckus.

The museum itself is at its most successful when it is peopled by players past and present. And often it’s the non-professionals that capture the imagination.

The section on What Rugby Means to Me has some lovely stories about players and what motivates and inspires them, and helped me to overcome the posh-boys rugger-bugger prejudice I had been nursing.

The museum is run and funded by the Rugby Football Union, the governing body of English rugby, but aims to tell the global story of the sport.

There is naturally some England-bias in the collection but there are attempts to give an international flavour with displays on how the sport evolved in different countries.

Unfortunately some of the more controversial aspects of the sport’s history, including breaking the sporting boycott of apartheid South Africa, are given the swerve with only the most passing of references.

And that reminded me of the other difficulty museums about sport face – it’s all too easy to be celebratory. After all that’s what the fans and the funders want, but that makes it too easy to forget the more contentious – and interesting – bits of history.

A review of the World Rugby Museum will appear in a forthcoming issue of Museums Journal