Opened in 2009 by Drs. Jan and Terry Todd, the H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports is one of the University of Texas at Austin’s hidden gems. Situated in the Darrell K. royal football stadium, the Center boasts a wide array of historical materials related to the history of sport, medicine and physical culture. I first became aware of the Stark Center during my Ph.D. research on physical culture in Ireland. For those unfamiliar with the term, physical culture relates to a late nineteenth and early twentieth century fitness fad which began in Europe and Great Britain before spreading throughout the globe. Seen by many as a precursor to the modern interest in keep fit exercise, bodybuilding, powerlifting etc., physical culture has much to teach about an individual nation’s history.
Given the popular nature of physical culture, few individuals felt the need to preserve their fitness interests for posterity and it is here where the Stark Center distinguishes itself. One of the only physical culture research centers of its kind, the Stark divides its focus between the collection and preservation of materials alongside public exhibitions in the Center’s own museum.
Entering the Stark Center, you get an immediate sense of the Museum’s guiding mission, the preservation of sport and physical culture material. Leaving the elevator you are met with a ten foot tall replica of the Farnese Hercules mounted on top of a revolving pedestal. In any other museum such a sight would be an anomaly. Here it is a furnishing! Continuing throughout the museum, you encounter old art works of physical culturists and bodybuilders situated beside Greco-Roman sculptures. This is to say nothing of the old exercise equipment littered throughout the displays.
Due to the Stark’s vast collection of archival materials, exhibitions are routinely changed out. At present the Museum is divided into exhibitions on Texas football coaches, old strength performers, bodybuilders, golfers, wrestlers, Olympic athletes, bodybuilders and a mismatch of old athletic photos. Unsurprisingly, the Museum attracts a vast array of visitors interested in the weird and wonderful of the sporting world.
For anyone interested in the history of sport, exercise, medicine, health or gender, the Stark Center represents a unique, often eyebrow raising, visit. Illustrative of this is my favorite item currently on display – the Peoples’ deadlift bar.
Created by the 1940s American strongman and athlete, Bob Peoples, the Peoples’ deadlift bar is a wooden barbell that Bob Peoples trained with on his Tennessee farm. Built with a basket either end of the barbell, the deadlift bar allowed Bob Peoples to train with stones from a local quarry. Whenever Peoples wanted to lift more weights, he went to the quarry, grabbed the largest stones he could find and put them in the baskets. Over time, this method allowed Peoples’ to become one of the strongest men of his generation.
The bar is striking for two reasons. First its existence speaks to the special nature of the Stark Center. Second, it highlights the ingenuity of exercisers in the early twentieth-century. This is to say nothing of how cool an item it actually is!
If your curiosity has also been peaked by this taster, why not go and visit this wonderful museum for yourself.
* * *