Museums & Galleries Qld

Archive for September 2012

Big Things

Railway carriages, wagons and locomotives are big things. And with big things come some big challenges, not least of which is the responsibility to take care of these museum accessioned objects. The locos in the US are, on the whole, really BIG.  The diesel locos are amongst my favourite things – they are big, shiny, imposing and evocative of a place and time when railroads were important.

Added to the size of these objects is the sheer volume of wagons carriages and locos that a lot of railway museums hold in their collections.  Storage and display for rolling stock (as with any large transport items – buses, planes, boats) is therefore particularly challenging. Many museums have an enormous array of heritage rolling stock sitting on rail lines in yards, open to the elements and largely un-interpreted. And herein lies the challenge. How do you store, restore and interpret so that your responsibility to an accessioned object is met when there are so many and they are so big?

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For museums such as the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, the B&O Railroad Museum and the Altoona Railroaders Memorial, there have all been variations on the theme of undercover storage. Large railway-styled buildings such as the climate controlled rail hall at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania or the new Roundhouse being built at Altoona offer a mechanism by which care for the objects is enhanced by storage inside at the same time as visitor access is improved. But can and should you put all of your rolling stock inside?

With desirable space up for grabs, railroad museums here are beginning to look at their rolling stock collections with a critical eye. Many report that collection in the past has been ad hoc and consequently their holdings are variable, with some highly significant objects side by side with yet another (insert relevant wagon / carriage depending on context!). They simply have more rolling stock than inside space can fit. The opportunity to get items on display has meant that a more rigorous view of significance is being brought to focus on these items. This has also aided in assigning priorities on conservation and restoration and given rise to strategic decisions about what themes, pairings, eras and foci for display are to be used. In some cases, curators have gone a step further and are selectively de-accessioning a small number of locomotives and carriages not considered significant under their collection policies. These are generally donated to other organisations, thus maintaining heritage while slightly lessening the burden in a big collection. With the pressure of finances and the premium cost of storage and display of Big things, this critical eye is a step we could all learn from.


GERALDINE MATE is the Senior Curator, Transport and Energy at The Workshops Rail Museum, Ipswich, a campus of the Queensland Museum.

M&GSQ’s 2012 Mentorship, Exchange and Fellowship Program is funded by Arts Queensland through the Regional Arts Development Fund (RADF). RADF is a joint Queensland Government and Local Government partnership to support local arts and culture.

See M&GSQ’s website, for more information about the Mentorship, Exchange and Fellowship Program.

First Impressions

Let’s start at the very beginning … Here I am in Baltimore, Maryland for the first Railroad Museum visit. And I must remember to call them Railroads, not railways … it’s an American thing. As American as George Washington. The first national monument to George Washington was erected here in Baltimore in an area called Mount Vernon, an area that also boasts the Peabody Institute, the former home of Wallace Simpson (now the hotel I’m staying in), the First and Franklin Presbyterian Church with the city’s highest steeple, and the 1872 mansion of John Garrett, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad magnate. In Baltimore it seems everything relates back to the railways (woops), so it’s a fitting place to start my visit.

So far I have braved the freeways, learned to look right and then left when crossing the road, worked out the money (sort of) and bamboozled people with my Australian accent.  So today I was wondering what the first museum would bring. Interestingly it was a sense of home. I visited the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Museum, on the site of the former Mt Clare Railway Workshops. The industrial site, the locos, and the museum talk made me feel, at last, that I was in a familiar place. The scale was different but the issues the same. The locomotives were bigger, and the collection impressively large, but as we discussed the challenges of engaging audiences, caring for large technology objects (more about that another time), interpreting important stories and keeping visitors coming, it was with a sense of shared purpose.

Railroads – As American as George Washington and popular with people of all ages.

The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Museum has had their fair share of challenges, the most dramatic of which was the collapse of the roof of the historic roundhouse in 2003 after a heavy snowfall. The roof collapse closed the museum, and damaged some significant collection items. But, as it is in the railroad (got it right this time), from adversity comes advance. The restored Roundhouse is a fitting venue to show off their amazing collection of rolling stock. And the interpretive strategies they use to tell a variety of parts of the history of the B&O Railroad has moved to focus on people, a deliberate shift away from a focus on technology. This is something that many rail museums (indeed many transport museums) struggle with, but is a key to attracting a more diverse audience. Although it is important to meet the needs of the more knowledgeable sectors of audiences in specialist museums, I really believe that if we want to make collections more accessible, it’s not just about getting the objects on display or on the web, but making them interesting to a wider range of people and giving our visitors a deeper understanding of the human stories behind our museum collections.

A beautifully restored loco, this piece was damaged in the roof collapse and has undergone careful restoration.

And rail museums are about the people. According to the directory of North American railroad museums, there are 294 railroad museums in North America. That’s a lot of people – visiting, inquiring, restoring, telling stories about, and working in, the railway. The very first story you see in the B&O Railroad Museum, is the story of a person – Charles Carroll, then the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, who broke ground for the start of the B&O Railroad, in 1829 – the first railroad in the United States. So as a beginning, the B&O Railroad Museum, the place recognised as the birthplace of American railroading, seems a very good place to start.

The timbered dome of the B&O Railroad Museum’s roundhouse.



GERALDINE MATE is the Senior Curator, Transport and Energy at The Workshops Rail Museum, Ipswich, a campus of the Queensland Museum.

M&GSQ’s 2012 Mentorship, Exchange and Fellowship Program is funded by Arts Queensland through the Regional Arts Development Fund (RADF). RADF is a joint Queensland Government and Local Government partnership to support local arts and culture.

See M&GSQ’s website, for more information about the Mentorship, Exchange and Fellowship Program.

With the new National Curriculum being rolled out in schools around Australia, there are enormous opportunities for schools to engage creatively with their local Museum. Here’s some good ideas from North Stradbroke Island Museum’s Newsletter:

Recently, the Dunwich State School teachers came to the Museum for a Professional Development session, to discover  how the expertise, resources, volunteers and Museum collections could be creatively used by the teachers and students.

Already this year, the Year 2’s have had a Treasure Hunt in the Museum, looking for artifacts made by Aboriginal people using
natural materials (a small project the Yr 2 class completed after this visit is currently on display in the Museum), and the Year
4/5 class has been on an Historical Walk around Dunwich. We are also working with the School to include a historical
component to the student’s Walk-a-thon around Point Lookout later this year.

“When we take classes on historical walks, we share stories
and show photographs of various locations through time, to equip
students with the skills to ‘read’ and imagine the layers of history and
meaning over the landscape and the built environment”, said Museum
worker Elisabeth Gondwe. “A favourite stop on the Dunwich walk is the
draughts board under the camphor laurel trees near the Police Station”.

A delightful animation to inform collection rationalisation and deaccessionning programs. SHARE Museums East have commissioned the creation of this animation to help explain what rationalisation is. The animation explains that by refining a collection the museum is in turn making itself more accessible and therefore more effective. Rationalisation is about making the museum more effective in serving the public.

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