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Polishing the Past

Summary: Questions of restoration policy for locomotives, includes a reference to Berlin Technical Museum. . . . . .

No doubt readers familiar with the Friends website (or, indeed, the National Railway Museum itself - in between lockdowns) will have seen plenty of images of shiney locomotives now in preservation. The Friends have contributed significantly over the years to some of these restorations. ‘Glorious’, you might say and I have heard many a visitor comment as such. But is this ‘the real thing’?

A few years ago I was working in Berlin and, with a few hours to spare, I sought out the Berlin Railway museum or ‘Technical Museum’. This is in the bombed out ruins of a station, freight depot and locomotive sheds at Anhalter Bahnhof, in the south of the city. Perhaps some of you have been there. The museum features the remains of a roundhouse and various other features, including weed infested sidings and other remains.

Prague, Czech Republic: Interior of National Technical Museum in Prague.

The history of Berlin, particularly in the twentieth century, is complex and fashioned by the impact of World War II, in particular. This very much influenced the decision of the authorities to set up the museum as they did. It has been a big influence on the exhibits themselves too. Some of us might shiver slightly at seeing a locomotive with a swastika on the front, or pause thoughtfully before a wagon that took victims to Auschwitz. Our own museum tells other stories, of course but, although we might exclude the work-weary look of Bulleid’s Q1 class locomotive, and some other exhibits, most look well cared for, as those impressive photos show.

Video: Bulleid Q1. Chris Eden-Green

Back in Berlin, though, I had a shock. In the half light of a winter’s afternoon, the old roundhouse felt like a mausoleum and some of its occupants looked to be lined up ready for scrap. It was as if the museum was exhibiting objects straight from the scrap line at Woodhams, Barry. Here was a catchily titled ‘Dampf-schnellzuglokomotive’ (express steam locomotive) ‘Green painted, Class S3/6 (Maffei of Munich, 1918), and there an E19 streamlined electric.

I discovered later that it was a conscious decision to preserve some examples of exhibits ‘as they were’ at the point of withdrawal from service.

Alfred Gottwaldt, a senior curator, explains: ‘All rolling stock in the museum will never be used for transport again and the Berlin staff are especially interested in explaining to visitors what age and time mean to an object. The museum curators decided to have a ‘case-by-case’ policy for restoration. …… The main appraisal questions are: What particular evidence does an object give if it is left in the condition in which it arrived? What story can be told by the object? Which historical traces would be lost to restoration and repainting as done by most transport museums?’

‘ …… full repainting of locomotives is necessary only in rare cases. Not all colleagues share this opinion. In short, we prefer use of the dry duster to the paint brush. Some of our locomotives are rusty and greasy, but they are genuine, they are ‘real,’ and they are discussed ardently by visitors.’

‘Some examples are a Prussian class P8 steam locomotive built in 1910 that came directly from a Polish scrapyard into the museum gallery with broken windows, without coupling rods or number plates, but with ‘locomotive smell.’ It symbolizes the lost glory of steam traction and of Prussia, and also gives an idea about the hard work of locomotive men.’

‘Do technical objects embody an engineer's idea only, or do these objects live a life of use, change, and development, which is worth keeping visible?’

It was a strange experience with one half of me feeling appalled by the lack of care, but another side thinking that, well, that’s what they really ended up like. It was ‘real’.

The debate among museum curators about the ‘restoration’ of objects is a lively one, as you can imagine. Who, for example, would want to ‘restore’ the Elgin Marbles? That’s an obvious one, you might say. But, then, there’s an exhibit in the Greenwich Maritime Museum showing a bullet hole in the blood stained coat worn by Nelson at Trafalgar. Should we restore that? And, then, what about locomotives and other objects of railway history?

Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson's jacket from the Battle of Trafalgar. The National Maritime Museum of London

As a counter point to images of our most treasured NRM exhibits I looked across to some photographs of locomotives working freights on British Railways during the last days of steam. There were grubby examples with numbers barely visible, scorched smokebox doors, lime scale stains on the boilers and steam leaking from many joints. I guess most of us feel uplifted and proud to see Mallard or Duchess of Hamilton in their finery and would not want to be reminded of steam’s final days. But are we kidding ourselves too much? Could the Berlin Technical Museum be right?


John Swanwick



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