How to build a sports ‘museum’
Sports historian Boria Majumdar on memorializing India's sporting heritage, looking beyond stars and why losing has a place
Sports pilgrims in India can now pay homage to their heroes in the country’s first multi-sports museum, the Fanattic Sports Museum (FSM), which opened in Newtown, Kolkata, in January. Jointly owned by sports historian Boria Majumdar and industrialist Harshavardhan Neotia, the museum displays medals, jerseys, gloves, cricket bats, tickets to Olympic matches and assorted sporting memorabilia, with all the passion and gusto of a “sports fanatic".
But will this largely private collection (everything so far is from Majumdar’s collection, though they are forging partnerships with leading museums of the world), bathed in stardust and nostalgia, go beyond celebrating the obvious legends and present an honest account of India’s sporting development? Majumdar answers this and more questions in an email interview. Edited excerpts:
It’s a bit of a late start for India to have a sports museum. Were there previous efforts to establish one?
It is indeed a late start. In fact, a very late start. Every county in Britain has a cricket museum. Almost every football club has a museum. Unfortunately, in India, the art of preservation doesn’t exist. Our sense of sporting history is limited to watching a few old matches on television. Archiving isn’t an Indian thing and that explains the lack of a museum. I am sure efforts have been made in the past. But the truth is, we did not have a composite museum for sport and that’s what the Fanattic Sports Museum is.
Are there any international sports museums that inspired you?
Three in particular. The Olympic Museum in Lausanne where I was a fellow in 2005. Since then, I have gone back to Lausanne, Switzerland, many times to work in the IOC (International Olympic Committee) archives (while researching for his book). It is a brilliantly curated collection. The National Football Museum in Manchester, which is easily the best football museum in the world, and the MCC Museum at Lord’s, which is an inspiration for every Indian sports collector and fan.
Sports historians are traditionally reluctant to display archival sporting heritage at exhibition galleries...
I don’t think this is true. Rather, people don’t have the artefacts to exhibit because getting hold of them is a huge challenge.
How do you plan to exhibit primary and secondary resources on Indian sporting history from libraries and museum archives at Fanattic? What are some of the most interesting objects on display here?
I don’t plan to exhibit stuff from libraries. Fanattic is my own collection and I daresay I have one of the best collections of archival material on Indian sports. The collection has been painstakingly built over a period of two decades. To give you a few examples: The earliest sports magazine or document to come out of India was the Bengal Quarterly Sporting Magazine in 1837. We have it. The next run of magazines was The India Sporting Review between 1845-54. Again, we have it. We have every book published on Indian cricket in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including the very rare A Chronicle Of Cricket Among Parsees And The Struggle: European Polo Versus Native Cricket (1897).
Will you also give space to the most classic experience of competitive sports: losing?
Absolutely. Sport is not about winning and breaking records. It is about participation and breaking boundaries. Jackie Robinson in 1947 broke the colour line (Robinson, at 28, was the first African-American sportsperson in the 20th century to make his debut in a Major League Baseball match). He may not have won but he did something monumental. A Mohun Bagan-East Bengal rivalry (in football) is part of India’s social and cultural history and has to be memorialized and talked about. A history of the 2010 Commonwealth Games, which I call an opportunity lost, is essential to study and understand India’s sporting history and we at the Fanattic Sports Museum are very conscious of this.
Sports museums can often morph into “trophy cabinets". How do you plan to contextualize the historical and cultural information on the objects that you have?
The museum is not only about the stars. It can never be. In fact, sport is not about people who have broken records or won medals. It is far more than that. The reason I have letters from Nazir Ali from India’s tour of England in 1932 is to try and understand what the mindset was during the first official tour. Again, Mushtaq Ali’s letter to C.K. Nayudu from England in 1946 talks about the divisions within the team and the difficulties the team faced then. The documents that talk about the failed Rajputana team’s tour of England in 1938 (very little known in the annals of Indian sport) help us understand how difficult it was to organize private tours then.
FSM wants to help us understand Indian sport in totality, with the good and bad, bright and dark, negative and positive. Controversies like Lala Amarnath being sent back in 1936 (from the tour of England) is as much a part of this history and there are extensive documents in the museum on this controversy. The guiding premise is to encourage fans and enthusiasts interested in India’s sporting history to understand the story in totality.
What are some of the interactive and experiential features of the museum?
The whole idea was to make it interactive. You can come and watch rare matches of your choice in personalized terminals. Read the rarest of books and journals in the original. Soon soft copies will also be made available. You can buy sporting merchandise from across the world in the museum shop. The idea is to make it a sports aficionado’s delight.