- Many Rivers Crossed: Searching for the Public Sport History of Black Nova Scotia
The notion that sport museums tend to exalt individual stars and celebrate winning moments will surprise no one who reads this journal. To contest such exhibition practices, Bruce Kidd notes that “halls of fame play a strategic role in the public remembering and interpretation of sports.”1 In examining how sport museums “confer status,” Kidd joins the historians who have observed museums as active agents in creating narratives of the past, often at the expense of a more nuanced integration of exhibit themes within a broader historical context. Despite this, Murray Phillips cautions that “criticism of museums for lacking detailed historical arguments, for failing to present complex points of view, or for providing minimal contextual material is a misreading of the story space of museums.”2
This notion of “story spaces” was of particular interest as I began a pilot study for what I hope will eventually be a larger collection of untold stories in Canadian sport history. This review explores the contribution of museum exhibits in revealing, constructing, and constraining the sporting history of marginalized groups. I visited four museums in the Halifax, Nova Scotia, area looking for a little-told sport history: the experiences of sport and recreation among black Nova Scotians, in particular the former residents of Africville, a [End Page 86] now-demolished black Halifax neighborhood. Of the four museums, two were exclusively sport-themed. The other two focused on the history of the local black community, with one of these specific to Africville. My aim was to consider their exhibits in terms of their representation of black sporting history in the region, specifically in Africville, acknowledging that relatively little scholarly or public history has been disseminated about the sport and recreation experiences of the neighborhood’s residents.
The first stop was the town of Windsor, 50km (30 miles) north of Halifax. The Windsor Hockey Heritage Museum celebrates the town’s claim as the birthplace of ice hockey. Detailed by Garth Vaughan’s The Puck Stops Here: The Origin of Canada’s Great Winter Game Ice Hockey (1996), the claim is based primarily in the writings of nineteenth-century businessman, judge, and sometime author Thomas Chandler Haliburton, whose family’s gypsum mining operation pockmarked the local landscape. Filled with water, these mines became ponds, which froze in the winter and were enjoyed by local skating enthusiasts. One such pond—Long Pond—was on the grounds of King’s College School, a private boys’ college near Haliburton’s home. It was in recalling his own experiences as a student at King’s that Haliburton wrote in 1844 of boys playing the game of hurley on ice. This, then, is the evidence of hockey’s “origins” in Windsor.
The pursuit of “firsts,” especially in a pastime that evolved from other games, seems more the subject of trivia and tourism than historical analysis, and the Windsor ice-hurley players stand more than anything as exemplars of nineteenth-century amateurism. The Windsor Hockey Heritage Museum, housed in a wing of Haliburton House, embodies the upper-middle-class origins of the sport. Its exhibits move beyond the “first” game to note local champions, discuss the Starr skate manufacturing company, and display a variety of national, Continental, and international hockey memorabilia. Some of the artifacts, while interesting to enthusiasts, suggest a fanatic’s rec room and are related more to the evolving modern sport of hockey than to Windsor’s claim as the game’s supposed birthplace.
Another regional sport museum is the Nova Scotia Sports Hall of Fame. Housed in Halifax’s downtown hockey arena, this relatively small museum’s nod to historical context also focuses on “firsts.” A small display of hockey equipment enters into the origins-of-hockey debate, noting for visitors, “The question is not ‘if’ it originated in Nova Scotia but ‘where’ in Nova Scotia the game was first displayed” before recounting the textual evidence that points to early versions of on-ice stick games. Among the exhibits, there are three small panels, titled “Sporting Landscapes,” which move beyond stories of individual athletes and offer a glimpse into...