The Friends of the
National Railway Museum

South of England Group
Vice Presidents: Richard Hardy; Sir William McAlpine Bt, FRSE, FCIT, FRSA

Last Update

Talk Synopsis

7 January 2006

The NRM Knowledge & Collections Department
Helen Ashby,
National Railway Museum
14 March 2005

On seeing her visiting card, some have commented that Helen must "know a lot", in her position as head of Knowledge and Collections at the NRM. Helen did not disabuse us of this view, in her 90 minute talk on her task in overseeing the "stuff" in the National Collection. This is not a prejorative term but a bona fide description, refered to in the guidence of the International Council of Museums as "any item or thing suitable for documentation in an archive". Helen described here job as giving the public the greatest access to this stuff through the Museum, its library, internet web site, or increasingly, via networks with other bodies allowing the sharing of exhibits and knowledge. Only through such sharing can knowledge be put to use.

The "Big Four" kick started the early part of the collection as part of the 100th anniversary of railways in 1925, although some items pre-date that (the obvious example being the original Rocket). For a long time, though, only the LNER gave public access and it was not until the BTC museum in Clapham, and subsequently the NRM at York, that the collection became a national collection and archive of railway history. The activity which dictates the shape of the collection is the acquisition policy, to which Helen dedicated the majority of her talk.

New items for the collection are acquired with a view to the future. They must either be "key" items of necessary for the telling of a particular "story" concerning railways or their impact on society. With such a substantial existing collection, the current policy is obviously targeted at gap-filling. A major constraint is to avoid obtaining items which cannot be looked after according to the national and international standards for museums. One way round this is to forge partnerships with other like-minded bodies to allow sharing of exhibits and the storage demands.

Any new potential aquisition is judged against four criteria:

  • Is it relevant to the aims of the Museum
  • Is there a use for the object in the collection
  • Is it in reasonably complete condition
  • And does it have good prevenance.

In addition, to further prioritise possible candidates, there are a number of assessment criteria. These are not yes/no answers, but graded according to a 10 point score:

  • Is it unique or scarce?
  • Preference is given to items for which there is no other equivelent preserved elsewhere.Is it representative of a type
  • Does it merit preservation, e.g. important as an example of technical improvement, or having a major impact on society
  • Is it part of an established series, or an important stage of development
  • Does it represent a significant event or change in history (Mallard is an example of the former)
  • Is it of regional, national or international importance (the Shinkensen is an example of the latter)
  • Will a surrogate, e.g. a model, suffice to stimulate the audience (on some occassions, e.g. bridges and viaducts, a model is the only practical way forward)

Every item must score at least one "10" against one of these categories in order to be a candidate, and must score at least "20" overall. In addition it must get markings as either regional, national or internationally significant. The Collections Development Group Board meets each month to assess candidates and inject some objectivity into the assessment. This process avoids the collection becoming dominated by any particular interest/sector

An item is ruled out if its preservation would run counter to the International Council of Museums' code of ethics. For example items are avoided if they are radioactive, hazardous (e.g. asbestos containing), or contain illegal substances. This may seem hypothetical, but Helen recently faced a question when it was found that the LEV, which was stored in the yard, was found to have been used by a someone sleeping rough - the result was that it had to be professionally checked for both hazardous materials and banned substances!

Coming back to giving access to the collection, the new Multi-media Information Management System (MIMSY) is an essential tool. This can index every item and cross link to other relevant information, e.g. photographs, as well as giving the current location and status. Ideally all items should be stored undercover in a controlled environment, packed or displayed to preseve their integrity. However, the Museum's storage facilities are not ideal. The Wharehouse and Shildon are the exception, but other items are kept in less good environments at Foundry Lane, the basement of the Station Hall, Blythe House (near the Science Museum), and the basement of the old trainshed at Bristol Temple Meads. The Museum aims to consolodate all these existing stores in some new, purpose built facilities at York. In addition to much needed storage, this will offer a new reading room with facilities both for serious, accredited, researchers and casual visitors.
Some railway societies have, and continue to, provide valuable contributions though their voluntary effort in indexing and scanning the drawings archive. While Helen would like to invite others to help in this way (the job is a massive one), lack of space and the poor enrivonment in which the drawning (not to mention volunteers!) are kept means that this is seriously constrained. The current store is in the basement of the Station Hall, located under the platforms - the foundations under the rails on which the locomotives and rolling stock are displayed is solid, but under the platforms are useful cellars which have been pressed into service for storage racks. The location has problems over water ingress, mainly when heavy rain overloads the drainage system (despite being basements, they are well above river level so do not suffer flooding from that source). The basement under the cafeteria has other problems - rodents attracted by the discarded food; luckily they have not yet got so hungry that they start chewing the archive! Nevertheless, this does show how urgent is the need to find more appropriate storage accommodation.

Even the "best stuff" has its problems. Helen showed us the damage suffered by parts of Queen Victoria's Carriage. This was due to the pure ravages of time, compounded, surprisingly, by the fact that the very best, and most oppulent, materials had been used. For example, cushioning was of pure silk, overstuffed with cotton and buttoned. The pressure caused by the stuffing has led to separation of the silk threads. Specialist renovators (the same ones used by the National Trust for conserving contents in their historic properties) were called in from their Bristol base. They used very skillful techniques of backing the damaged material with equivalent fabric and using microscopic stitching in order to make the repair invisible to the casual observor. The display of the resulting rennovated interior has also been addressed. Gone are the flourescent interior lights, replaced by state-of-the-art fibre optic cables, carefully introduced via the original gas lighting fittings. The result is an ambience with a much more realistic colour temperature, showing off the interior in a similar way to its time in service. This has been supplemented by carefully controlled heating and humidity to ensure that the carriage contents are preserved to the best possible effect.
Decisions on how best to conserve the more mundane rolling stock are subject to much discussion. Fundementally, each is assessed on how much of the original fabric still remains. If there is any danager of damage to such original material, it is generally left well alone. For example Lode Star still has its original Swindon paint, so even the removal of asbestos had to be done in such a way as to avoid any damage. Winston Churchill is in the same state as at withdrawl, and removal of the work-hardened grime is considered unforgivable. Other prestigious locos attract a more flexible approach. City of Truro, and Flying Scotsman have been subject of so much restoration work in the past that little remains from their original build. In their case it is the iconic status of the locomotive that needs to be maintained, so professional restoration is quite appropriate as and when required. The buusiness case for City of Truro's latest restorations could be questioned since its main line outings have been very lightly loaded, although recent visits to preserved lines have been more fruitful. Duchess of Hamilton is an interesting case study. As with the previous mentioned locomotives, the Duchess has undergone several restorations. However, unlike Truro and Scotsman, there are other examples in existence and running. The Museum cannot therefore justify expending scarce workshop and management effort on its restoration to running condition at this time. However, a feasibility study to look at possible cosmetic conversion to streamlined form would mean that it again could resume an important position in telling the story of this powerful locomotive class. Another interesting, and quite different case, is the Lynton & Barnstaple coach. This was rescued from a garden where it served as a sumer house after withdrawal in 1934. It is a unique survivor, but should is be restored to operating condition? When you consider that it has spent most of its life as a summer house, that there is no running gear and no suitable line to run it on at the NRM, it is not surprising that it continues to be exhibited in "as is" condition. Surveys conducted of visitors are equally split between those who want it restored and those that don't, so keeping it as it is remains the best compromise.

Rocket, the original, will never be restored and not even the most radical railway enthusiast would have it otherwise. But the working and sectioned replicas serve to illustrate what it looked like and how it worked. With the archeological survey conducted by Michael Bailey and John Glithero, we have a comprehensive record of this important icon.

Some exhibits are just too big! The BR Boiler wagon set falls into this category. Even if it was possible to get it undercover, it would take up so much space as to make it totally unweildy. Since not only did it transport boilers but it is built like one, it is unlikely to suffer by being left outside, indeed even the most evil minded vandal would have difficulty doing any damage. All that is needed is the occassional lick of paint to keep away the rust and aerosol attacks.

Other items require a little more attention. The SR 2BIL set is currently in the workshop undergoing major rennovation to its interior, which has suffered from years of neglect. Once finished it will be on static display - since no one has any 3rd rail electric track (and the NRM has no intention of laying any bearing in mind the hazards it would pose to visitors!)

Treatment of modern exhibits poses different issues. All of them come with complete documentation, even down to driving manuals. This means there is little danager in destroying evidence for future generations. As a result it is quite in order to operate and repair them.
Finally, Helen addressed a new challenge for museum custodians - how to preserve the "intangibles", such as working skills, traditions and personal experiences. The National Railway Community Archive is an attempt to do just this. It allows any visitor, who has railway-related reminiscences they want to preserve, to use a computer, scanner, printer and voice recorder, to commit these to the archive. This allows everyone to share experiences and allows comparisons to be made of different views of the same event - the perspectives of a union member, management and customer can be quite different of, say, a railway strike. The National Archive of Oral Railway History, supported and run by the Friends, is another example. Here trained volunteers interviewed a broad selection of railway employees and commited the results to audio tape. The collection of some 500 interviews is now catalogued and many have been transcribed. The results are being made available to researchers. Another essential area of knowledge which must be retained is the engineering and technical skills needed for locomotive and rolling stock restoration. The NRM have now taken on their first "Modern Apprentice" who is being trained in both the practical and theoretical disciplines by the existing workshop team, supplemented by lessons at York College. More apprentices are likely to follow.

Helen concluded by restating her commitment to make the collection as available as possible but noted that some barriers would be unavoidable, for example in connection with health & safety requirements - it's amazing how "lemming-like" some members of the public are!
Questioning was wide ranging, covering the challenges posed in maintaining the archive, especially the audio and graphical material, in the face of continual changes in the technology of storage media, to the links with other museums and institutions. The Chairman, Dr Ian Harrison, proposed a well-deserved vote of thanks for Helen's detailed insight into the work of the Museum.

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