League of legends: 100 years of rugby league in Australia

review by Michael McKernan

The first academic conference on the history of sport in Australia, The Making of Sporting Traditions, was held at the University of New South Wales in 1977. As the participants moved into the lecture theatre for the opening session, we were harangued by an angry economic historian on the university's payroll who seemed to believe that the serious study of sport had no place at a university. Determined to justify the academic study of sport we concentrated on class and race and gender and money and national values. We concentrated on the things historians do and we felt justified in spending time and effort in talking about sport.

Stand for a while in this exhibition at the National Museum of Australia and you will see a forthright refutation of the silly academic elitism of the economic historian, if anyone would be mad enough still to advance it. My second visit to League of Legends was particularly instructive. A quiet early-in-the week rainy afternoon yet the exhibition was attracting a steady flow of visitors, deeply enough engaged with the objects and the story to show that they loved their footy. They brought to the museum a love and knowledge of rugby league, their code, their passion, that they expected the exhibition to confirm. It is always a thrill to be in a museum when it is crystal clear that its collections and its story are working for its intended audience.
League of legends_trophy and photo wall
League of Legends exhibition, with the Courtney Goodwill Trophy (first awarded 1936), in the foreground
photograph by Jason McCarthy
National Museum of Australia
League of Legends_Telstra premiership trophy
Telstra Premiership Trophy, first awarded 1998
National Rugby League
photograph by Jason McCarthy
National Museum of Australia
There is much to like in League of Legends. One long wall display comprises 100 photographs, one for each year of the centenary. The photographs, all of equal size and identically framed, repay careful study for the variety of information they disclose: for dress codes (players and spectators), for social dynamism, for the absence of women in the game (until very recently), in the stands, at the victory celebrations, in fact just about anywhere. Move across the way to the jerseys, the blazers, the caps of past and present, strong evidence of the role sport plays in creating bonds, of developing loyalties to colours and clubs. Then there are the trophies. Is rugby league different in the size and elaborate detail of its trophies? Those on display simply astonish. Then there are the voices of the past, footballers in 'Footy Yarns' where we hear Noel Kelly tell us that he played a vital game while suffering from chicken-pox (is that possible?) There are the voices of the commentators, too: Tiger Black and Frank Hyde, immediate and thrilling. There they are, too, on their way to call an England test for their respective radio stations but armed with a letter from a Sydney Monsignor, hopeful of an audience with the Pope for the mike-men. And film and television clips from some of the games that still stir emotions in the moments of victory and defeat, in the remembrances of heroes, in the celebration of the intensity of sport.
League of legends_ABC bus
View of the exhibition, showing an ABC outside broadcast van from 1956 in the background
photograph by Jason McCarthy
National Museum of Australia

The design of the exhibition is accessible and vaguely kitsch. There is a modest attempt to recreate the locker room feel of sport, but without any of the chaos and jumble that footballers seem to like. The light levels are fine, for many of the objects are far from fragile, though what look like knitted jumpers would deteriorate in too much light. The captions are clear and easy to read and remarkably neutral. The design and layout encourages the visitor, certainly does not intimidate, and assumes interest and involvement.

The central fact about rugby league, as this exhibition makes very clear from the outset, is that it was a radical breakaway from rugby union. This meant, of course, that in the rugby league states there was permanent rivalry between two strong football codes. A comparison with the dominance of Australian Rules football in the southern states shows how important the division between league and union was. In New South Wales and Queensland, football was divided along class, religious and even political lines, whereas in Victoria, for example, football united all the people, or more often united them in the love of the game while dividing them along club and locality lines.

League of legends_red jersey cabinet
(left) display of international rugby league jerseys and (right) showcase featuring material souvenired from Pratten Park, Wests' former home ground
photograph by Jason McCarthy
National Museum of Australia
League of Legends is not an exhibition that sets out to explore these important and complex themes of class, religion, gender, ethnicity and politics. Perhaps that is the work of historians, and an exhibition is not a book. Even so, this important centenary exhibition would have been richer and more valuable with closer attention to context and conflict. More so than almost any other sport in Australia, rugby league has created communities and produced intense passion. Look at the stories of Newtown and South Sydney, briefly told here, for that sense of community, for that extraordinary passion. To talk to rugby league fans is to hear the passion. Yet the fans are missing from League of Legends — well in the glass cases anyway. They are swarming all over the exhibition floor and it is intriguing to eavesdrop, but theirs should be a formal presence.

Good exhibitions, like good books, should make you think, and I came away from League of Legends thinking hard about what sport is for. In this exhibition it is about playing, winning, recalling; it is about mates and places and some change and development. It is about great players and great moments. But sport is more. It is about money and influence, it is about community and class, it is at the heart of who we are. League of Legends might have done more; but it is giving those who know and love their league a mighty good time, anyway.

Michael McKernan is a writer and broadcaster, and author of The Brumbies: The Super 12 Years.

Institution: National Museum of Australia
Curatorial team: Guy Hansen, Cinammon van Reyk, Adrian Henham, Aaron Pegram
Historical consultant: Ian Heads


Acumen Design
Exhibition space: 600 square metres

National Museum of Australia, Canberra, 8 March – 11 May 2008

Queensland Museum, Brisbane, 6 June – 10 August 2008
Museum of Tropical Queensland, Townsville, December 2008 – March 2009 (reduced version)

New South Wales
Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, September–November 2008

National Sports Museum, Melbourne, April–July 2009 (reduced version)
Publication: League of Legends: 100 Years of Rugby League in Australia, National Museum of Australia Press, 2008. RRP $19.95