The Mysterious ‘Rocket’

Museum curators sometimes talk about ‘object centred analysis’. In its simplest form this is about inviting the viewer to look at an object without immediate recourse to an information board explaining context, giving a description and so on. Instead, the information is placed away from the object, perhaps on a nearby wall, forcing the viewer to seek it out. Infuriating, you might think, but it’s usually an attempt to force the viewer to think about the object for its own sake first instead of, what some would say, taking the lazy way out.

Let’s take an example. Let’s take the replica of ‘Rocket’. Now, imagine you are viewing ‘Rocket’ for the first time. Hard to do for most of us being so familiar with it, so perhaps we might try pretending to be someone under the age of, say, 10 years old who has perhaps never heard of it.

Picture: © Philip Benham

Just what is ‘Rocket’? Without any information board we might stare at it, noting it is yellow, some sort of machine. It looks rickety, fragile, likely to be unreliable. There are no twenty first century give-aways like switches, buttons, plasma screens, wires. Instead it appears to have a boiler to make steam, so it has room for water and coal, and a really big chimney. It seems to be able to move itself but it needs metal rails to do so. It can’t travel freely along any path or road, let alone a park or a field. And why it is called ‘Rocket’? It doesn’t look as if it could go ‘woosh’ into the sky in a shower of sparks, it doesn’t look fast like a real rocket.

Now image you are someone in the 1820’s or 1830’s, before the Victorians, before the age of railways. ‘Rocket’ would seem very strange. You could look at it and think it might be a replacement for a horse, but it would be expensive. You would need rails for it, metal to make it – some of it valuable - skilled workers to build it. It couldn’t possibly replace the horse and, anyway, is it as graceful as a well looked after horse? Would it last as long? Its name suggests its makers seem to think it is capable of great speed, some sort of pyrotechnic display, possibly frightening. Could it be dangerous, a bomb? In short, it looks like no other object, but one intended to do the work of a horse. It is intended to be, well, exciting.

By now you are probably getting my drift about object centred analysis. If we study an object without description or context we can begin to see more about it, to understand how it is made and what for, we can see why it might deserve a place in a museum. Through the eyes of a child, in ‘Rocket’’s case we might begin to understand what such an object must have seemed like to those who first saw it, both cold and static and, then, in action.

There’s also the notion of the object’s ‘gaze’, meaning what it is trying to say to you, the viewer. What might ‘Rocket’’s gaze be? That it is somehow a game changer, painted in yellow for effect? That its very name suggests not some sort of pyrotechnic quality but something that will explode on the world, making a big impression? Looking at it, it seems bold and daring, its makers not concerned with following convention but out to produce something that looks provocatively different to anything else that has gone before.

Object centred analysis is there for all to try, with many objects in many different types of museums. It is often associated with object art but it’s an approach that lends itself to many situations. Next time you are in a museum, the NRM perhaps, try skipping the information boards for a moment and study a chosen object to sense what it is saying to you, what it is about. You could try enlisting the nearest child to add insights!

I should add that I am in favour of the name ‘Rocket’ but my favourite comes from the period a few years later, when ‘Rocket’’s offspring were pounding the rails across Britain. I am thinking of Daniel Gooch’s ‘Fireflies’. Now, what could be a better name for a locomotive, an entire class, than that?

Broad Gauge Replica Loco, completed at Didcot by The Fire Fly Trust in 2005.


By John Swanwick

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