JP Metras Sports Museum Internship: Creating an Oral History Project from the Ground Up

The Public History MA program at Western University involves two semesters of coursework followed by a summer internship.  The nice thing about an internship is that it offers a higher degree of flexibility than a cognate paper, allowing us to go out and seek placements in any a variety of public history fields.  For example, some of my colleagues this year are going into archives, museums, national or provincial parks, as well as historical consulting firms.

My internship this summer falls into a few of these categories.  I will be working on campus at the JP Metras Sports Museum, collecting a series of oral histories of former athletes, coaches and administrators from Western University.  Since my responsibilities will vary between drafting questionnaires, ethics guidelines, purchasing equipment, conducting interviews in the field, and developing a digital database to house the new records, I want to outline the stages of the project as they unfold in order to help others working on, or hoping to work on, similar projects.

This being the first post, I want to just briefly introduce the JP Metras Sports Museum, and in the next post I will provide our tentative summer work plan.  Over the course of the summer, I will document successes and failures in meeting these outlined objectives, and do my best to articulate solutions to avoid mistakes in the future.  I will also be sure to link others to the many online resources that I am using for this project.

The “W” Club and the JP Metras Sports Museum: Background

The “W” Club is a volunteer not for profit organization whose directors donate their time, energy and money to enhance and promote athletics at Western University.  Their membership includes varsity athletes who played for Western.  They depend on membership donations to carry out their various projects. The “W” Club is the fiduciary of the J.P. Metras Sports Museum.

The J.P. Metras Sports Museum researches, documents, and exhibits the artifacts, photographs, and other archival materials associated with the athletic teams of Western University since 1878. This research reinforces the history of the athletic traditions of the school.  This research also places the contributions of Western athletes, coaches, and administrators within a greater context of Canadian sport history.

In 2009, the Metras Museum developed a working relationship with the Public History Department at Western, hiring an intern to identify, catalogue and digitize sports artifacts and photographs.  While great strides have been taken in collecting visual and textual research, there is an urgent need for the collection of oral testimonies.   Due to the age of these individuals, time is of the essence in collecting and preserving the oral testimonies of former athletes, administrators, and coaches at Western, for the Metras Museum.

But, why collect oral testimonies?

The stories of these individuals add a vital research dimension to the growing collection of photographs and sports statistics housed at the museum.  For instance, the other day the director of the museum, Ted Hessel, brought in an alumni from the W club to look at the a collection of Stats books from a National Wrestling competition in the early ’60’s.  The final match included the name of the alumni standing right there, indicating that he won by a few points.  Ted related to me that this individual just stood there in awe, and told him the story of that victory.  The fight that his competitor put up, and the strategy he had to use to win.  He related the thoughts going on in his mind as he thought he was finished.  Now, a video of the days events might tell us some of these things, but only that testimony allows us to know how he understood and experienced the match.

Additionally, this research not only preserves stories about Western’s athletes, it also preserves stories about their legacies as Canadians, many who represented our country in the Olympics. For others, the experience in athletics at Western led them to contribute to our nation in a diversity of other ways, as leaders and mentors to countless others.  As the Metras Museum forges a unique path forward in the expansion of a Canadian university sports museum, an oral research component will not only benefit the history of sports for Western, but for other Canadian schools seeking to emulate its work.


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