Discussion on Heritage and Football at imagine IC.
Discussion on Heritage and Football at imagine IC.

More than trophies

Football clubs can do more than they realize in the field of history and heritage

Jonathan Even-Zohar
Jonathan Even-Zohar Reinwardt Academy

We are in Amsterdam. It is the 11th of January 2023, and – together with several partners in the Football Makes History project, we are sharing a meal with Matthias Thoma, director of the Eintracht Frankfurt Museum. “People are crazy for it. They come every day. The place is sold out!” He is referring to the recently won Europa League trophy, which is currently the “Mona Lisa” of the club’s museum.

But there is more. He talks about the sight of seeing families, grandparents with grandchildren, people from Frankfurt as well as from other continents. And there we sit, a mixed group of educators, museum and heritage professionals, researchers and civil society organizers, asking ourselves: How does football “do heritage”? How can this sport, which mobilizes entire villages, towns, cities, continents and the world as a whole, generate so much passion for objects, memories and stories? And: What can people in the heritage field learn from this culture and – vice versa – what can be improved in the football world with support of the heritage and education sectors? Is there more to the Football museum than trophies?

These questions fed our three day research workshop, hosted by the Reinwardt Academy in Amsterdam on 11-14 January 2023, and powered by the Erasmus+ funded project “Football Makes History. Schools and Football Club Museums unlocking the potential of local heritage education”, which is lead by the Erasmus University Rotterdam.

What is heritage?

This was the question introduced in our research workshop by Hester Dibbits, head of the Cultural Heritage Research Group of the Reinwardt Academy. The response can be read as an answer with an open end. At the Reinwardt Academy, heritage is approached as a concept that refers to “something” which is from the past, which exists in the present, and is valued with a view to the future. It is made in interaction, between people, and between people and things. It is addressed from the point of view of everyday life, and raises questions about authority. Who gets to say what from the past should be kept? How is this negotiated? When is something important? 

Based on these concepts, the educational programmes of the Reinwardt Academy, suggest that their graduates not ‘only’ work in heritage and museum field to preserve, guide and curate, but to critically and creatively engage with the contestation of heritage.

To be, or not to be a museum?

Football clubs have collections, they have fans who collect, they are riddled with stories of experiences in and around football. They encompass communities with collective, entangled, memories. Could all this mean that clubs have a responsibility to engage their “heritage community”? And if so, how? Should all clubs open museums?

Let us first take a step back. There are important changes in the field of museums and heritage. Menno Welling, manager of the MA programme “Applied Museum and Heritage Studies”, during one of the discussions, referred to the increasingly visible implementation of the Council of Europe’s 2005 Faro Convention. Another important reference we put forward was the new ICOM museum definition. Looking at football culture as a heritage community, brings forward many questions about the ownership, management and societal utilization of artifacts, stories, notions. etc in the world of football. During our research workshop we took some time to focus on one particular dimension of these developments, and this was the educational role of the museum. We used the method of a Fishbowl Discussion to wage an active and multivoiced debate around the essential differences and similarities in the ways that schools and museums approach education, and what this could mean in the case of a football club museum. Key insights included:

  • Museum education is different from schools because it seeks to provide learners with more fun, while learning also occurs but is not – like in school – very frontal in the learners’ experience;
  • Focusing too much on what defines museums (for example in comparison with libraries, temporary exhibits, experience- and visitor center, etc) is perhaps not that useful, as each context has its own strengths.
  • Football, and sport in general, or even music, when placed in a museum-like context offers a lot of possibilities to create social experiences. One person suggested that if we look at football as a ‘social object’ we can open doors to foster social values.
  • Being a football club museum differs from being ‘just’ an experience centre, when it addresses the clubs roots in the local context, for example by empowering fans to curate exhibitions.

Frauke Koenig of the Eintracht Frankfurt Museum suggested at the end that between having just a “hall of fame” or being a “local identity museum” is a rich spectrum of variety, and it can be different on each day. Reflecting upon the workshop, she stated: “ It was overwhelming to learn the untapped potential of (Football) museums. Local networking of a wide range of academic and socially relevant institutions is essential for their further development as places of learning.” 

Stories in stadiums

Two majestic trees flank a canal outside a large historical Olympic stadium. They are surrounded by two decorative fences boasting the Olympic rings. But pedestrians and cyclists passing them by don’t pay attention. What are these trees?

Many people understand heritage to be related to the specificity of a place. Sport, specifically football, stadiums present a canvas on which sport history can be retold, reimagined and presented. The so-called “theatres of dreams” on the face of it might seem like places to talk about sporting achievements, tournaments, matches and medals. But when viewed through the lens of social, cultural and political history, they hold many more stories and can help uncover untold stories, present new perspectives on the present and the future and more! 

What’s more, while many sport venues might not have museums, stadium tours are common activities for people seeking to visit clubs. During our research workshop, Dutch sport historian Jurryt van de Vooren provided a special guided tour of Amsterdam’s Olympic Stadium. His tour, only one hour in length, managed to bridge many different topics, ranging from “art at the Olympics”, to “short history of stadium architecture” and the “invention of the parking ‘P’ symbol”, and many more! His tour gave us a possibility to reflect on the specific role of stadium tour guides. How are these offered? To what extent are guides able to tell stories which are ‘invisible’? How many lenses is a tour guide able to employ? How do guides enrich stories with their own viewpoints and inside knowledge? 

Jurryt explained that the tree were gifts for the medal winners of the 1936 Olympics, which were held in Berlin under the auspices of the Nazi regime. Two trees in Amsterdam carrying with them a direct relation to the authoritarian usage of sport. Are they ‘museum objects’? What kind of conversations could you start standing under those trees?

How about the how?

One of the perspectives Hester Dibbits stressed in her presentation is that heritage is contested, with some items labeled as heritage being (much) more contested than others. To engage with it, (future) heritage professionals at the Reinwardt and in the professional field, are supported with the (ongoing and iterative) development of methods and approaches. We took a closer look at three of them.

First of all, we tried an ethnographic walk. With a particular mindset on observation, opening of all senses, focused reflections and applying broad and open questions, our team went to five different street football pitches in Amsterdam. There they observed, hung out, listened, asked questions, in order to cultivate curiosity and simply get more aware of what these pitches are for people. It was only a short demonstration of a method which otherwise should be stretched in time and attention, as well as be better anchored with a purpose.

Secondly, we did Emotion Networking. This method is initially developed by Hester Dibbits and Marlous Willemsen (Imagine IC) and works as a tool to make visible the relations and positions which people hold toward a certain (prospective) item of heritage and be able to have a conversation together, effectively doing a peer research, into the values and feelings said object connects with. We practiced this with the topic of a statue at the Olympic Stadium which has recently been removed from the public space and put in a closed off part of the stadium. During the tour of the stadium, we had already seen this statue and heard Jurryt’s explanation of its original intention being a Roman-inspired Olympic greeting prior to that greeting being adopted by Mussolini’s fascists and Hitler’s followers. The method of Emotion Networking allowed us to share our initial feelings toward this statue, express how our feelings changed upon hearing one anothers perceptions and learn how the real feelings attached to such an ‘item of heritage’ can be reflected upon. 

Finally, we visited Imagine IC in Amsterdam South East, and learned about its specific approach to listen to the network in this city district, its mission to voice the unheard and its concrete approaches to work toward reciprocity and equality in how history is collected, exhibited and told. The concept of ‘chain responsibility’ was introduced. Heritage work too often is an act of ‘taking’ (for example a story) and not providing any aftercare about how that story is then brought into the world. The very touching example we were able to find out much more about is the recently made exhibition about the 1992 flight crash disaster which, paraphrasing the words of Imagine IC director Danielle Kuijten, cause an immediate trauma because of the loss of life, and an immediate follow-up trauma due to the way in which this massive, national, disaster was made to be confined to this multicultural, and therefore perceived as ‘less Dutch’, city district.

These examples of how new conversations on and around heritage can emerge could inspire new ways to develop football heritage work. We don’t yet know exactly where and when, but have practiced with some interesting ideas on how.

The content of an educational activity/programme should be closely connected to its target groups and these groups cannot be clearly represented without involving them directly.

Stefano di Pietro, Partner of the project. Filmmaker, Director & Founder of In Medias Res.

Compact play at the local level with schools

Let’s go back to football clubs. Leaving aside the largest clubs, which have become global brands, most football clubs are firmly rooted in local community identity. The love which supporters feel for their club may often go along with their love for their city. It may therefore strengthen and build a sense of belonging. When the Eintracht Frankfurt Museum educators conclude their educational workshops with local teenagers, they would all together conclude that they are ‘all Frankfurt’. This notion of inclusion and local identity is thereby applied as an educational approach. In our project we research what this means, how it works, and what the role of (traces of) the past is. And this research is done in and with the field, it is practice-based research. This is why we invited stakeholders from The Netherlands to join our workshop on Friday 13th January, and ask them: What would they like to do more in this area? What do they need to do this? 

Without going into details, there are a couple of really interesting things we learned in this network event:

  • Football clubs are starting to collaborate more with city archives and other municipal culture and/or heritage offices to make sure that their – often predictable and heavily football-centric – anniversary activities do engage with the city’s cultural and social history, for example the recent 125-year anniversary of Willem II in Tilburg (NL). How could such collaborations become more sustainable, and wouldn’t education play an important role there?
  • Football clubs connect with their fans in various socially engaged ways, for example the continued rise of ‘memory work’ with elderly fans suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological conditions, for example Football Memories. How could such initiatives also be embedded in community archiving practices?
  • Football clubs without a professional capacity, also known as amateur, or grassroots clubs, face more fundamental challenges of not having capacities to keep records, document stories and build sustainable archives. But on the other hand are much closer to the immediate society, without commercial or otherwise exploitative directives. Could small-scale local connections between such clubs and local schools help generate local, neighborhood-level, historical awareness among teenages?
  • Football clubs, but also national federations and leagues, are sensitive to take part in commemoration, in particular with relation to the Second World War and the Holocaust. Building upon earlier European initiatives like Changing the Chants, remembrance sites, historians and other specialists are able to collaborate with stakeholders in football, with a particular aspect on education as a means of reversing or preventing racist and antisemitic behavior. How could such activities be further mainstreamed?

Before the training, I was not so aware of the huge potential of using football in the context of researching and building heritage, identity of a particular district or city.

Anna Skiendziel, history teacher ZSTIO2 Vocational school, Katowice, Poland.

Looking ahead

Are you interested in developing your club’s (perhaps we should not call it a) museum? Or do you know of specific examples of inspiring work? Let us know! In the coming years, Football Makes History hopes to collaborate with football clubs at the local level to co-design new approaches which help clubs foster their core values through, with and by working on their past, toward the future. The Reinwardt Academy Heritage Lab will be at the forefront of the effort to create and test new tools and approaches together with the field. We believe there is a need in the world of football, as well as a potential, and an urgency to ensure the past is part of the future. As leader of this Erasmus+ project Gijsbert Oonk put it: “Collaboration and sharing expertise in the field of sport, heritage and education is key to come to new innovative venues.”

Find out more

You can find out more about the Amsterdam Olympic Stadium controversy on NL-Lab. Watch this short explainer video about Emotion Networking.

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Discussion on Heritage and Football at imagine IC.
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