In celebration of 175 years of YMCA, our incredible Heritage and History Exhibition charts the growth of the YMCA movement and the impact it has had on millions of people across the world. The exhibition will be telling the untold stories and telling afresh the stories we already know.

From humble beginnings when George Williams created the YMCA in London in 1844, the stories unfold through the years, focussed around YMCA’s four themes of Civic Engagement, Economic Empowerment, Health and Environment.

YMCA175 Heritage Project is supported by
The National Lottery Heritage Fund

Telling the story

The history of YMCA will be told in three ways: through storyboards, four interactive installations and storytelling points. Detailed storyboards will highlight key events and people who were involved with YMCA over the years, such as our work with the Olympics, the UN, and the opening up of Eastern Europe.

A highlight is John R Mott’s story (the first Noble Peace Prize winner) and how he spearheaded YMCA’s involvement in both world wars with a Prisoner of War programme, for which he was awarded a Distinguished Service Medal.

Interactive installations

Be sure to allocate some time in your itinerary to absorb the potency of the history in our four installations.

You will be inspired and moved by the stories of the endeavours: from the birth of basketball at Springfield College in Massachusetts (imagine it all started with peach baskets!); George Williams’ drive to have YMCA recognised as an international movement; YMCA’s unrelenting role in wartime; and the art that has been created, often in the face of adversity.

George Williams

The George Williams installation is a replica of his office, featuring a beautiful Victorian desk, his portrait and a cabinet filled with memorabilia and artefacts, such as George’s sword and medals.

You can step into history and sit at the desk and sign the visitors’ book.

Photo credit: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/

The wartime role

The wartime installation will transport you to the time of the Second World War with a full-size tea car called Bertha (supplied by English Heritage) which was used on the front to supply weary soldiers with much-needed refreshment.

You can see the uniforms of the staff and discover more about YMCA’s role, with stories about the service of approximately 5,000 volunteers in the American Civil War, along with its support in the Boer War and the Spanish American War. During WW1 YMCA played an integral part in meeting the needs of the armed forces, working closely with hospitals and convalescent camps. During WW2, the role of YMCA grew as it worked closely with prisoners of war and refugees, running education programmes.

How basketball began

You can explore the fascinating history of basketball, from how it all started in 1891 at Springfield College in Massachusetts. James Naismith was a teacher at the college and was looking to create a physical activity that would interest his students.


Basketball was a success and became popular very quickly. You can take a look at a copy of the 13 original rules and photos of the first team to play. There will be an interactive game to try too.

The art of YMCA

Artists’ work, posters and postcards depict the evolution of YMCA over the years in the art installation. On display are copies of posters from China, Middle East and India for example, which advertised services like health campaigns. Moving artwork from Prisoners of War under the guidance of YMCA will also be exhibited.

Interactive storytelling points

In the Video area you can sit on sofas and tap a menu on the screen to watch a fascinating YMCA film about international relief work.  The Audio area will enable you to put on headphones to hear an oral YMCA history. The Epic area will feature a big screen for storytelling on a grand scale. You can watch historical movies, but also tell an opportunity to record your own story.

On the road

This exhibition is the preview before it takes off as a roadshow around the UK YMCAs.

It will be managed by YMCA staff who are trained in capturing oral histories and it will be co-produced with young leaders.

Our thanks go to…

Our partners: the World Alliance Archive, Springfield College, the Kautz family in USA and the Cadbury Research Library at Birmingham University, UK, which is where the YMCA national archive is held.

YMCA175 Heritage Walk Challenge

If you’re going to be in London for a few days before or after YMCA175, why not take the YMCA175 Heritage Walk Challenge!

This challenge will take you on a journey to 9 locations of historical YMCA significance. It’s a 5-mile walk (plus a couple of tube rides) and should take you about 2½ -3 hrs, depending on how long you stay at each location.

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