Museums & Galleries Qld

Geraldine Mate, Senior Curator at The Workshops Rail Museum blogs from Baltimore on her International Fellowship

Posted on: 18 September 2012

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.

 

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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, www.magsq.com.au for more information about the Mentorship, Exchange and Fellowship Program.

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2 Responses to "Geraldine Mate, Senior Curator at The Workshops Rail Museum blogs from Baltimore on her International Fellowship"

294 Rail ‘road’ museums in North America!?! And I thought we had a lot in Queensland! Sounds like you’re having a ball.

Hey there. Just saw Karen’s link to your blog. I’m in new York!! Here till 25th. Wonder how far away Baltimore is!

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