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This week, maybe we could discuss museums? After all, we are Friends of one, and what are friends for?

The thought occurred to me wandering around the NRM recently. As usual with ‘curious minds’ I looked up the definition. “Friend – a person with whom one has a bond of mutual affection’ and, interestingly, ‘add (someone) to a list of friends or contacts on a social networking website as in ‘I am friended by 29 people…..’ Suddenly I feel old.

If you look elsewhere on this website you will see the Friends of the National Railway Museum, as a charity, founded in 1977. Fair enough but did our founders intend that ‘bond of mutual affection’ with the museum itself or something more, well, ‘intimate’? Friends show mutual affection by things like ‘advice’ and ‘opinion’ but Friends aren’t that person, or the Museum. You know how it goes. Stand behind a group surveying Ellerman Lines in sectioned form in the Great Hall. ‘What did they do that for? Cut it up like that?’ Probably for educational reasons rather than out of malice or insensitiveness but who, exactly are ‘they’?

MADE: 1949 in Eastleigh railway works MAKER: Southern Railway DESIGNER: Oliver Vaughan Snell Bulleid
SR 'Ellerman Lines' 4-6-2 Merchant Navy Class sectioned steam locomotive, No 35029. NRM

In my career I have spent a fair amount of time in different organisations and it’s interesting to take the temperature of the culture by listening out for the pronouns. Rarely was it ‘we’; and not’ they’, ‘they’ became ‘we’ when your team were together, probably your peers. That was where we really meant something, you were friends with a mutual cause. But higher up, somehow, ‘they’ was a better way of describing what was done that you didn’t necessarily agree with. In the oral histories I collected, it was accepted parlance to talk about ‘them’ meaning railway management and, higher up, ‘them’ referred to ‘the Kremlin’ at 222 Marylebone Road in London. It’s always somebody else, you see. It’s not me – or we.

222 Marylebone Road in London. Historic England 1900. Image: Pinterest

I once stopped a group in their tracks (excuse the pun) when I asked if they thought they were ‘friends’ of a heritage railway. ‘Of course,’ they replied without hesitation, but, then, it didn’t really seem like ‘mutual affection’, more like an updating of the old ‘them and us’ terminology.

So where does the Friends stand with all this tortuous terminology? Well, the point is, I suppose, that it’s just too easy to equate the Friends with the Museum itself, one and the same, peas in the same pod. But as a Friend we can be mutually affectionate without necessarily going along with what the NRM does. Museum curators have a lot of things to think about. What should be in store and what on display? And, if on display, how can objects be integrated into a story? What will bring in much needed visitors?

A national museum, as is the NRM, has a duty to tell the story of our railways as accurately as possible though that is, in itself, a debate to be had. What is the story? Museum curators have stories which are told in different ways, history tends to shape shift over time, different interpretations occur. It’s not so much a matter of there being a ‘right’ one but that museums show different interpretations using different exhibits. In this world, ‘mutual affection’ is about showing appreciation for the efforts of each other, Friends to the Museum, and vice versa which, in turn means saying that sometimes I don’t agree with you but I still like you and I understand why you do it.

Perhaps I should go up to the next curator and hug them, as a mark of ‘mutual affection’ but, then, maybe not (I hope the curators aren’t reading this). Let me just settle for being a Friend at a (safe) distance but always remembering ‘that’s them’ and this is ‘me’. We aren’t ‘we’.

What do you think?


John Swanwick

Readers might enjoy reading how Friends was formed in Frank Paterson's article Unintended Consequences

Benefits of becoming a Friend of the NRM

  • The satisfaction of being involved with the world’s leading railway museums.

  • A quarterly magazine, NRM Review, which carries information relating to the Museum and articles on a variety of railway topics (with a supplement, Half Fare, for younger members).

  • Programmes of talks in York, London and Shildon.

  • Opportunities to help run sales stands at model railway shows and other railway events.

  • Opportunities to travel, on steam specials all over the country (eg Flying Scotsman) with our on-board sales trolley.

  • Discounts in the Museum’s shops, restaurants and car park.

  • Occasional events exclusive for Friends.

  • Opportunities to get involved as a volunteer.

  • Annual trips to overseas railway museums and railway-related attractions.

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Oct 03, 2021

"Thanks - Another perceptive piece !

Some individual Friends really do see the museum as 'they' - particularly when the policies or actions are not to their liking.

But the strength of our organisation is that 'we' has always predominated in our relationships .

We don't support all policies and different priorities are inevitable but we have developed relationships with our professional colleagues that are the envy of many other museum Friends organisations. We have no 'hidden agendas' and every one of the many Friends initiatives over the last 45 years has had the backing and support of the museum management and professionals".

Frank Paterson

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