Friends of the National Railway Museum
South of England Group


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The National Railway Museum Great Hall Re-display - Dr Belinda Morris, Display Content Manager
  Over the past few years we have become accustomed to hearing of the Museum’s plans for re-development – the 'Flying Scotsman' exhibition, York Central, the streamliners etc. Now we move a step closer. Dr Belinda Morris, who has developed exhibition content at the NRM for 11 years, gave us some insights into the plans for the re-display of the Great Hall. This is a subject that moves some grown men to near apoplexy, but Belinda made a cogent case. As she points out, the current layout is fundamentally the same as when the Museum opened in 1975 – it lacks focus and punch and does not tell a story. It is simply a collection of objects whose relationship one to another is not obvious to the average visitor.

In a bid to understand more about the profile of its visitors, the Museum has done some work to segment its audience. The rough breakdown is 49% families; 46% independent adults and 5% pre-booked schools. The majority of visitors are on holiday in the area, are local, or are travelling from their home on the day of visit. However some will travel any distance as “Pilgrims” and another group are “Progress Checkers”, like us, who visit, often from further afield, when something has changed.

The Museum’s aim is to boost the interest level, engagement and “dwell time” for the visitors, giving them more of an active rather than passive experience and a better feel for the impact of railways in the UK and elsewhere.

The problem is how to get a better experience into the same space – there is no increase in the size of the current buildings planned. The solution is to insert a high level walkway, or Backbone, into the Great Hall that will offer new space for introducing the story of railways and offer views down onto themed displays which tie in with the outline story. The introductory experience will explore what makes up a railway and will focus on the opening of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway as the first main line passenger railway. Story threads from this point will introduce people, technology and timeframes for what happened before and after this important event.

So having traversed the walkway, people will be better informed to explore the main exhibits, which will be more variable than at present in content and with better explanations. Other ideas include relocating the Museum shop in order to create a better entrance with more explanation about what is where and improving the goods in the shop to link to the items on display. The “City” entrance will become the single point of entry for general visitors and the Car Park entrance will be used solely for school parties and conferences.

The turntable will stay put, but vehicles may be placed on lengths of track other than the fixed layout to improve space flexibility. That said, there are likely to be fewer vehicles on display and the list of those that will be included is being worked on at the moment. That means that homes will need to be found for some items and, given the more descriptive nature of the display, it will not be possible to move the majority of vehicles around in the same way as at present.

One of our number made a brilliant suggestion for creating a new exhibition of the surplus items – use the ex-Eurostar platforms at Waterloo!! Plenty of space, undercover and a railway environment. What more could one ask?

If the Heritage Lottery Fund and others accept the Museum’s proposals for the Great Hall and release the requested funding (the cost is £20million in total) we might have it open in time for late 2012. But it will take a lot of work and goodwill all-round for that to happen. We await developments