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August 02, 2012

Olympic History on Display During London Games

by Al Pessin

LONDON — A little known requirement for every Olympic Games host city is to put on a stamp-collecting exhibit. Usually these are small and attract only serious collectors.  But in London, the exhibit is designed for a larger audience.  

This year's Olympics stamp exhibit is at the large and popular British Library, where local residents and visitors have easy, and free, access.  The displays focus on stamps and posters from London's two previous Olympics, in 1908 and 1948, and from the first modern Games in Athens in 1896.  But they also include other types of artifacts.

Curator Bob Wilcock is particularly proud of a rare copy of the official poster for the 1908 London Olympics.  But it is just one of thousands of pieces of history on display.
 
One of Wilcock's favorite postcards features Thomas Jack, the man who was leading the marathon in 1908, but stopped off at a pub along the way and never finished the race.

There is so much to sort through that the library has put all of these very analog artifacts into a digital database.  Visitors can touch a series of large screens and go right to the year or event that interests them.
 
The exhibit also has an outdoor element, with Wilcock and other experts answering visitors' questions and selling 2012 Olympics stamps and postcards so people can make their own memorabilia.
 
For the curator, that is really what collecting and displaying Olympics items is all about.
 
"It can be something for everybody," added Wilcock.  "It's a means of preserving your individual, personal Olympic memories, the story of your visit to a Games.  And in the process, you are also able to tell Olympic history."

It's probably not the first thing people think about when they plan a trip to the Olympics.  But the exhibit offers a respite from the competition and the crowds, and a chance to reflect on the sweep of Olympic history, of which London 2012 is just the latest installment.