home Historical Girls to the front: the new Australian Sports Museum makes equality a priority

Girls to the front: the new Australian Sports Museum makes equality a priority

A pair of bikini briefs featuring the words ‘space for sale’. A bright pink women’s professional cycling jersey and a jumper with the logo of the Virginia Slims tennis tour. What do all these things have in common? They all have something to say about women’s sport and the huge challenges and changes in women’s sport over the last few decades. And they also all feature in the recently redeveloped, relaunched—and renamed—Australian Sports Museum.

New exhibitions and exciting new technology feature prominently in the museum. But so do the stories of women. The museum now boasts parity in the representation of women and men. And it wasn’t hard to do, says Helen Walpole, the Creative Director of the redevelopment.

Image is of the Original Nine, the women who fought for equality in tennis. Photo is black and white. Four women are seated on a couch, four stand behind the couch and one sits on the arm of the couch. The each hold a $1 American bill. Siren Sport. Australian Sports Museum.
Australia’s Judy Dalton was one of the Original Nine.

Equality a motivator for museum

“A really big motivator was to try and meet the benchmark established by Sport Australia,” Walpole said.

Sport Australia previously mandated that all their national sporting organisations needed to ensure their board of governors met a 40/40/20 split, meaning at least 40% of all positions must be held by women. Walpole says the Museum felt that was a worthwhile benchmark to aim for.

“We rolled that out across our content to say we want to tell 40% of our stories about men’s sport, 40% about women’s sport and 20% can be about any gender, and we wanted to make sure we allowed that space for transgender and non binary stories as well as the flexibility for when you’re talking about a sport like netball to be able to skew towards women.”

However, Walpole points out that they were careful about how that representation played out in the museum.

“We wanted to make sure that we didn’t just put showcases about women’s sport in a little ghetto somewhere and say, well here’s sport and then here’s women’s sport. Because we know that women’s experiences in sport are equally as valid as anybody else’s, so women’s sporting stories are spread throughout the museum.

“As well as being represented in the objects that we chose to display, it’s represented in the graphics that we’ve got throughout the museum. So, when there’s a picture of two blokes taking a high mark, there’s also a picture of women taking a high mark or rucking. In the entryway, the first image that you encounter is a woman carving up a big wave on a surfboard.

“We wanted to make sure that across the board anyone who comes in here is going to see that women are represented. And that women’s sport is part of the narrative of Australian sporting culture.

“But we have also highlighted in a couple of places specific narratives around what it means, particularly as a woman to try and become a professional or what are some of those barriers,” Walpole said.

Obstacles and hurdles

This is where the bikini bottoms, the bright pink women’s professional cycling jersey and a jumper with the logo of the Virginia Slims tennis tour come in.

The bikini bottoms belong to Australian beach volleyball players Kerri Pottharst and Nat Cooke who despite being incredibly successful athletes, were struggling to secure commercial partnerships or sponsors. So, they had the words space for sale printed on the back of their playing briefs.

‘I think it captures that playful spirit of Cook and Pottharst, but also underscores the fact that it’s a real struggle,’ Walpole said.

In a similar story, the pink cycling jersey belongs to Dr Bridie O’Donnell who had had some terrible experiences as a woman on the pro tour and was looking to create a professionally managed women’s team. O’Donnell pulled together a number of sponsors and built a successful team that treated women fairly.

Alongside the bikini bottoms and the cycling jersey is a jumper from the Virginia Slims tennis tour belonging to Australian Judy Dalton. Dalton who was one of what’s called the original nine who formed the tour which was the precursor to the WTA in response to the failings of the United States Lawn Tennis Association and the inequalities in prize money award men and women. 

‘[It] really reflects the kind of the risks that those women had to take,’ Walpole said.

Risk, of course, is not an unfamiliar experience for women in sport. And these stories sit alongside the Aboriginal flag Cathy Freeman wore around her shoulders at the 1994 Commonwealth Games and the story of Penny Cula-Reid, one of three teenage girls who took Football Victoria (now AFL Victoria) to VCAT in 2004, effectively forcing the creation of the Youth Girls competition.

Image is of Cathy Freeman after a race at the 1994 Commonwealth Games. She holds the Aboriginal flag. Siren Sport. Australian Sports Museum.
The Aboriginal flag Cathy Freeman wore around her shoulders at the 1994 Commonwealth Games hangs in the museum.

Seeing ourselves

Alongside a pursuit of gender equality, the museum has also pivoted away from a focus on elite sport to be a museum of Australian sporting culture.

“We wanted to focus on the human side. We wanted to focus on the social aspect, and we wanted to give people a museum that reflects the diversity of Australia, so that all of our visitors when they come here can see something of themselves and their own sporting journey reflected in the museum,” Walpole said.

“So that meant we needed to pivot away from only talking about elite sporting moments— which really was the kind of museum that we were before—and move towards being a museum that also looks at the everyday experience of sport.

“And so in making those selections, we thought, let’s make sure that we’re reflecting the diversity of Australia and that meant lots of different sports, different genders, different ethnicities, different locations around Australia.”


The Australian Sports Museum is located inside the Melbourne Cricket Ground. For more information, visit www.australiansportsmuseum.org.au

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