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On your marks, get set, and go see the new exhibition celebrating Australia’s history through sport

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Emma McKeon’s gold medals, Don Bradman’s cricket bat, and a torch from the 2000 Sydney Olympics—this winter, the National Library of Australia is sharing the best of Australia’s history through sport.

Curated by Director of Exhibitions Dr Guy Hansen alongside other Library staff, Grit & Gold: Tales from a Sporting Nation has officially kicked off to celebrate the stories that have dominated the households (and pubs) of Australian sports fans on game day and beyond.

But this is more than an exhibition: it’s an insight into the suspense, surprise, joy, and storytelling power of Australia’s sporting culture, highlighting how sporting moments can be absorbed into our national mythology.

Believing strongly that sport is a storytelling machine and a great reflection of what’s happening in Australia at any given moment, according to Guy the 160 items on display capture the life of the nation from the 1800s, right through to the modern day.

“We started thinking about how sport is like a machine for producing stories because games have a time limit, they have big personalities, there’s drama, there’s physical jeopardy—all of the ingredients for a good story,” says Guy.

“We obviously have tens of thousands of items about sport, but we got it down to 160 by thinking about material that will tell an interesting story.”

From how the first Indigenous cricket team came to tour England, to the birth of professional women’s sporting teams, community sports highlights (and much more), the exhibition has everything from scorecards to trophies, books, pamphlets, photographs, drawings, and clothing relating to swimming, tennis, cricket, the Olympics and Paralympics, NRL, AFL, sailing, and boxing. Just to name a few things.

And according to Guy each moment—no matter how isolated it may seem behind glass—has played an incredibly important role in transforming Australia.

“I like to look at sport as being a window into Australia’s history. Everything that happens in Australia happens in sports as well, but it’s turned up to 11. It’s really quite intense because of the competitiveness,” he says.

“All sorts of social issues which are unfolding in Australia are unfolding in sport, but you can see it a bit clearer.”

An example?

“Cathy Freeman at the 2000 Olympics…all the anticipation if she would carry the Aboriginal and Australian flags and if she would even win the race, that was an extraordinary event. All those matters of race and history coming together in one moment, I think that’s an amazing story.”

Other highlights in the display include the outfit worn by Ash Barty during her victorious 2021 Wimbledon campaign and the ‘State of Origin’ shield awarded from 1980 to 1991 depicting Brett Kenny and Wally Lewis. But for the full experience, visitors will have to head along to see it in person.

Hoping to surprise Library visitors with how many memories they have about sport, the ultimate aim of the exhibition is to have people connect with the stories and share their own with each other. And as a little bonus, visitors will also get to enjoy an opportunity to sit and read in a new book nook in the exhibition gallery featuring a selection of sporting biographies.

“We are a library and while the sporting biographies in the book nook are not a part of the Library collection, this allows people to enjoy books, think about being in a library and what a library does.”

“It’s a reminder that the National Library of Australia is a place where these sporting stories can be found and retold for future generations.”

Running until Sunday 5 November, entry to Grit & Gold: Tales from a Sporting Nation is free. So, on your marks, get set, and go—it’s game on at the National Library of Australia.

Grit & Gold: Tales from a Sporting Nation
Until Sunday 5 November.
National Library of Australia, Parkes Place West

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