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Museums for All?

The attraction of locomotives to younger generations inside and outside a museum. . . . . .

Search Engine library area

AS well as being bright and comfortable for researchers the Search Engine research rooms also provide a fantastic view across the Great Hall

After a morning in the Search Engine at the National Railway Museum, I thought I might risk entering the fray below for a look around the Great Hall. For those not familiar with the NRM, the Search Engine is located on a mezzanine floor with a glass and steel balcony that looks out over the Great Hall and from which you can also watch the to-ings and fro-ings of visitors. It crossed my mind that, these days, maybe the museum uses technology to track who visits what and in what order. A bit too sophisticated perhaps. The problem with researching in the Search Engine is the distracting noise from below, particularly during school holidays, so ‘the fray’ below seems like a good word to use.

Wandering past the turntable I came across grandfather Dave with son Andy and Andy’s two young sons, Dylan and George. The youngsters seemed intent on running around, burning off energy using a selection of tactics designed to disrupt adults.

‘Hard work today?’ I suggested, nodding at Dave. Leaning on the rail, he looked like the epitome of the grumpy old man but he smiled back and nodded.

‘We take the boys here to keep them occupied,’ he said, ‘but I must admit I’m pretty much shot at the end of the day’.

‘Me too’, added Andy. The boys just ran around in a circle in their Spiderman outfits.

‘Are they interested in what’s here?’ I went on.

‘Not really,’ Andy replied. ‘The steamers don’t mean much to them. They’ve never seen a steam loco in action, not like Dave, so it doesn’t really relate to their world. When we get home and I ask them what they remember of the visit they’ll probably remember ‘the Mallard experience’ because of all the moving about, and this because it looks something like what they know of trains.’ He waved his hand across to the HST power car sitting on the turntable.

‘I’m here for the steam locos,’ Dave added, ‘but I know what he means. It’s a different world between them and me. It’s what museums do, I suppose – either bringing back memories or else getting kids interested in something they haven’t seen before. Perhaps,’ he added, after a pause, as Dylan and George took another running turn around the nearest locomotive.

We chatted on a bit before I left them to it. To catch my bus I decided to cut through the station on the over bridge, looking down at the busy platforms, walking past that big clock, and the café that was once a signal box. My walk was a short one and my head tangled up with thoughts about what makes a good museum. Museums are sometimes stretched between remembering the past and educating for the future. The two groups of visitors don’t always see eye to eye. It’s an awkward fit. For some it’s therapy, for others an education. Tolerance is required, a willingness to explain and to reminisce, to talk to others, to look and to read, and sometimes to imagine. Not so easy.

What do visitors expect? ‘Most don’t know what to expect’, a commentator wrote in 1992 ‘– something about old trains, probably steam. Something interesting, comfortable and convenient for a few hours.’ Best to educate gently through interest and entertainment with the potential to create enthusiasts and researchers.

As I came down the steps from the station footbridge, in the corner of my eye I saw the two bright headlights of a train approaching from the north. Down on the platform I watched as a distinctly care worn Class 66 approached the cross over, heading south. It was a heavy minerals train and the driver touched his engine controls as he threaded his train through the station. There was a rumbling sound, the platform vibrated slightly, the announcer told everyone on platform 3 to ‘stand back as the next train does not stop here’. Along the platform there was a large family and the kids, as ever, larking about. All stopped as the train passed. I thought about going up to the dad and suggesting they give the kids some paper and a pen and tell them to write down the numbers of every train they see on their way to Kings Cross. Better not, though. They have their screens and their toys. Why bother collecting numbers?

I thought, then, that I had been born at just the right railway time – when the profusion of inherited locomotive designs was slowly giving rise to rationalisation and a change in the very approach to rail travel. A golden age to collect and classify numbers, to see steam engines – and a world away from that of today’s youngsters. But, then, there’s still that strange frisson of seeing a locomotive, lights shining, dragging its train across the points and accelerating away, feet tingling on the platform. It still seemed to attract today’s kids but maybe just as a distraction, best left in a museum where the adults can play too.


John Swanwick

If you can find it in your library, try ‘Perspectives on Railway History and Interpretation’, ed. Neil Cossons, published by the NRM in 1992.

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© National Railway Museum

© National Railway Museum

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