Museums & Galleries Qld

Geraldine Mate blogs from her International Fellowship about railway museums’ challenge to care for their big things

Posted on: 25 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.


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