Monday, 28 September 2009

Acting Director NRM appointed.

I see a poster on uk.railway says

"Helen Ashby has been appointed as acting NRM director.
The selection process for the full time director is in progress. "

Nothing as of this moment on the NRM press release site so I might say this awaits confirmation. A story that is quite fast moving.

Nothing in the NRM web page on vacancies at all.

First posted 28th September. By 1st October, no change on the web page. I was at the museum yesterday. I applaud Rails & Reels and I liked the display of such esoteric items as the Belvoir Castle wagon and other horsedrawn items. Have I not clocked those before? Someone would have undertaken quite a shunt to move the prototype HST over towards the workshop and get L&Y Saloon 1 in its place for use with filmshows.

Even so success surely does not mean a public body will not have a proper recruitment process? One member of the staff said to me "I believe headhunting has occurred". Regardless of what I personally think about the NRM and it really is considerable admiration, I am very clear and many conversations over the last few years have convinced me of this, it has a difficult reputation with quite some chunk of its "audience", the one's who go out and buy railway magazines. In those circumstances and in the recent development over what has happened with the parent museum director, it is surely inappropriate not to advertise the significant number of vacancies that must be due at the NRM with both the railway heritage press and on the museum's own website? I challenge the museum to undertake to do both those things.

Reading NRM Volunteer News 14 I found a list of departing staff. Janice Murray, Richard Taylor, Jim Rees, and Stephen Richards. I don't know their job titles because there is no published museum staff structure. That list was since News 13. I know senior positions in the areas of Archives, Engineering and Display were covered. Add to this, since June the search for a director. Is it not a bit strange for the museum's website about Vacancies not to deal with this?
(and just in case you read and wonder, I do not imagine myself as a candidate for any of these).

And another amendment made 1st October. An informant says in respect of the NRM Director job "Advertised in The Times Executive Vacancies a month/ 6 weeks ago I recall". My question: was this ever advertised in any of the railway heritage magazines or on the museum's own website where there is a vacancies page? Could someone answer that?

Information as of 8th October direct from the museum itself responding to questions I posed. Helen Ashby is the acting director but counts herself out of the permanent position. The museum directorship was advertised in the Guardian and the Times. Headhunters have also been retained. Recruitment is progressing. This vacancy was not placed in the railway press or on the museum's website.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

A sudden move onwards and upwards

For several months it has been public that museum director Andrew Scott would retire and be replaced this autumn. Matters took an unexpected turn last Tuesday. Andrew's boss, the head of the NMSI (National Museums of Science and Industry) was removed from post for contractual irregularities. This is all public now. is one of several sources. Another is . Molly Jackson had only been in this post at the NMSI for a matter of months. Pro tem the NRM director has a new job as director of NMSI. One perspective will be quite relieved that the NMSI structure allows the rapid re-deployment of senior staff when these situations arise. Another will quietly despair that the NRM's lack of independance means that in a year when it has already seen considerable turnover in its senior staff, it will now continue to experience "discontinuity" at the top. An eye to be kept open: who becomes the new NMSI director? It is unlikely to be Andrew who has stated he is heading for retirement at 60 publicly. Who is appointed as acting NRM director? And who is recruited to the post full time?

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

The Railway Children and the NRM

I would not want anyone reading this blog to think I am against activities which bring new audiences to the NRM. I am adamant that there are serious critical issues which ought to be addressed but when the museum does well would wish to praise it. One of the obvious challenges of transport museums is to reach new audiences and particularly youthful ones. There is a well trod route to this called Thomas the Tank which the NRM has joined in. However a couple of years ago the NRM realised there was another one which would appeal to a family audience. The result has been the staging with York's Theatre Royal of Edith Nesbitt's classic The Railway Children. In recent times this came to fruition in the mass market with a film made on the Keighley and Worth Valley and then re-made after a few decades on the Bluebell Railway. The latest press release from the NRM testifies to this. Audience figures at 26,000 are 9.2% up over the 2008 figure. This is obviously good news, not just for the museum but for the city of York. I have absolutely no hang ups over this sort of activity. Linking railways and culture is an exciting prospect. There are many avenues open for this. Just a couple of personal favourites from me are the folk tradition for instance Ewan MacColl and The Ballard of John Axon. A surprising number of navvy songs are out there being quietly forgotten about. Even recent writing can slip out of memory. Mike Donald's Land of the Pennine God about the 1910 Ais Gill smash is almost entirely forgotten although I heard it on Garsdale Station at Easter 2009 and went digging to find the music and lyrics. Another personal favourite is W H Auden. Major artistic icons in British culture have loved their railways.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Locomotion and Mr Quick

This weekend has offered up two subjects to extend our blog about the NRM without even going to York. One is largely praise and the second, not quite. The praise: with daughter, friend and his son, we went to the annual steam gala at Locomotion Shildon. Since Locomotion opened in 2004 it has proved very popular and well exceeded its visitor projections. It is a clever concept. It took an existing and important subject in The Timothy Hackworth Museum and added about half a mile away a brand new building which combines being an exhibition hall as well as acting as a welcome overflow store for exhibits from York. Between the two a short line acts as the link. Administratively an interesting model was established. Only one NRM person is employed on site: A Coulls, the curator. Otherwise the entire site was administered and operated by Sedgefield District Council who used to run the old museum. They were abolished in April 2009 and their role inherited by Durham County Council. So far the only obvious change was that the replica Sans Pareil locomotive bore a slogan now part of the National Collection. Since I am well
known for thinking some engines could safely exit the collection, I am happy to say this is one that fully justifies being a member.

The politics of any museum may bore some but they are fundamental to its existence and the future of a free entry museum being run by an authority whose other museums are all pay for may prove interesting. Killhope, Bowes Museum, Beamish all these charge in County Durham. However for the steam gala, this possible cloud did not intrude and despite no big star being on hand (Oliver Cromwell was due Sunday) I enjoyed myself. I liked seeing the Planet Replica from GMMSCI Manchester in action. The Furness 0-4-0 is a splendid machine and quite iconic. Neither are members of the National Collection but that is my point. The National Railway Museum can put on a splendid show by working with others. Co-operation was evident elsewhere. Volunteers to get the show on the road had come from quite a way. Two gentlemen had come from IMATT in Hampshire with a stall. Another man in overalls is normally beavering at Kirkby Stephen East on the Stainmore project.

I have been several times to Locomotion and I applaud the changing scene. The prototype Deltic had gone, the V2 4771 had come. I like the "secondary" exhibits some of which many a preserved railway might overlook. The BR Mark One Horsebox from which Dublo made a famed model, the GER Sand Wagon which I think inspired a Keyser kit, the made for SNCF 1946 mineral wagon, all of these can tell a decent story and merit their place. So do the bits and bobs of APT although their interpretation can be a challenge. The Crab 2-6-0 was a clean large lump occupying a fair space and that would be one of my targets for new owners!

To turn away from Shildon, the postman delivered a package on Friday. It turned out to be the fourth edition of Michael Quick's Railway Passenger Stations in Great Britain A Chronology. Is that earthshattering? Yes, it is. Since 2001 Michael Quick and his publisher the Railway & Canal Historical Society have delivered four editions of this magnum opus. The first three were spiral bound and felt like work in progress. Their appearance became part of a growing network of informants which with Michael's scholarship has produced a remarkable "finished product" for as the author remarks, he thinks the project has gone about as far as it reasonably can without further substantial input like long sessions in the British Library Newspaper collection. Michael has undertaken his task from near Taunton and his 544 page magnum opus is now beautifully presented. He does omit preserved, miniature and cliff railways and I cannot blame him for that. As someone who has a book under their belt working towards publication (Are we on time? British Railways Timetables 1948-1997), I find Michael's model of publication interesting. Largely he has worked without the internet or email. For the final punch subscribers were sought and therein lies the rub.

It was nice to see myself in the Acknowledgements, but I became even more excited seeing my name in the Subscription list. I think it is the first time I have offered patronage like this. Very wise, I paid £30 up front in July 2009 and am rewarded with the book at the door bearing a cover price of £49.50. I then sat down to leaf through the subscribers. That's when the brain began to whir. Sir William McAlpine, numerous members of the RCHS and the Transport Ticket Society. Two library services: Hampshire and Cambridgeshire. I knew the latter had a particular interest in ephemera and so being thorough enough to subscribe to Quick did not surprise. But what about other institutions? There was only a few more amongst whom London Underground Infrastructure Library and Middleton Press stood out for me. David St John Thomas, Andrew Dow and Philip Atkins were others among a good number that I recognised. Now the last two of those once worked at the NRM and the NRM is acknowledged for its assistance in the acknowledgements.

Am I missing something? Why was the NRM not in the subscriber list? Part of my growing argument and one which many folk are saying to me is that the NRM no longer rates specialist railway knowledge amongst its staff. On the face of it an unwillingness to shell out £30 in advance for what must be a contender for railway book of the decade (and should jolly well be nominated for a reference book prize) does not really advance the idea that the NRM supports scholarship. Nor could I immediately see either the Institute of Railway Studies or the University of York Library. The project has evidently not made it onto the present NRM director's desk to the degree that he felt it worth either investing in one himself or instructing a museum department to do so. Perhaps one of the names is a cover for the museum, perhaps they are relying on a review copy because £30 or £49.50 is unjustified expenditure. To me, unless I have missed something in which case I would publish a correction, if it had been my call, I would have wished the NRM as an institution to have known about the forthcoming book (the RCHS magazine is surely received at the museum) and to have been proud to have ordered an advance copy and seen the museum's name in the list of subscribers. The London Transport Museum is there.

I have tried to do some homework on this. The On Line Catalogue of the NRM does reveal that four earlier versions of Quick are at York. 1995, 1996, 1997 editions of his previous title giving opening dates only and the 2002 edition of the Chronology. That last entry does not quite tie with the 2009 book's own publication summary. Assume that it is a second edition of the Chronology and it means York lacks the 2005 and 2009 editions. And it is the 2009 edition that really represents the finished work and is bound and presented as such. It looks to me that a decade and more ago the museum was willing to support this research at the cost of minimal investment and that sometime in the last 6 years or so, that interest has died.

(16th November 2009: I was in the museum and noted that the new hardback edition of Quick was displayed in the New Books area, good stuff).

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Value for money

Anyone who stops by and reads through this blog will realise that in amongst some fascinating arcane stuff about old leaflets and carriages from Weardale, there is also the opportunity to debate the direction of a national museum. And anyone who has studied the history of this museum from the early years of the 20th century will realise that plenty of views have been expressed.

It is important therefore for me to express a bottom line as the museum heads towards a new director.

Here it is: Is the north of England, the home of the railway, worth more than a pack em in/stack them high museum product for surely that has to be the result of being both the most visited museum outside London and at the same time the National museum that achieves the most visitors for the least per head spend? That is my bottom line and one of several simple tests of what I claim is this: stand on the Search Engine balcony and ask yourself when was the last time the tops of the engines on show were cleaned? Does the museum have a cherry picker with a timetable for cleaning exhibits? Likewise look at the image at . Does that do justice to the museum's work?

It might appear we are picking some form of fight. Funnily enough, that is far from our character. I have been in the museum several times this summer and found it heaving. It is a free museum, one that you can spend all day, or just 20 minutes. I have no doubts that by a number of quite genuine measures, it is a great success. And it has established through the Institute of Railway Studies an organ for academic engagement, clearly a special interest of mine. Even so, the variety of publicised controversies (like 4472), the bottom line financial balance as I articulate it above and the opportunities that the arrival of a new director implies surely mean that interested individuals should have a public forum to talk about these issues and I invite readers to do that.

Some inside comment

Nigh on six months have passed and hardly anyone has added a "comment" to this blog. But it has been read! People keep making quiet comments to me. And today an exchange with a former senior member of management saw me agreeing to post the following by way of a comment. It is signed by a nom-de-plume and though I hedge my bets in agreeing with every word, I find my heart agreeing with many and certainly think this is a voice worth hearing and respecting:

"When I was there the curatorial view was that there was no need, for example, for so many Edwardian 4-4-0 locomotives in the collection, but that the corollary view was that no Head of Museum could or would dispose of five of them, and would never be allowed to if he wanted to. Not long after I left, I detected, there was a move away from subject specialists among the curatorial staff to museologists - in other words, people who would be equally at home in a collection of clogs or motor cars. Continued pressure from London resulted in tracks around the turntable in Great Hall being cleared for more and larger cocktail parties, dinners, and other revenue-producing events. The worst and most inexcusable case was the removal of the permanent way exhibits. This was done to create room for the Japanese power car: the failure to display permanent way elsewhere in lamentable - what is a railway without theway of rails? The besetting problem with museums, as with too much else in life, is the obsession with quantity at the expense of quality. Visitorship seems only to be measured, and only recognised by London, in terms of numbers of people and income received. No effort is made to measure the success or otherwise in informing the visitor: Is he better off, in his knowledge and understanding of railways, than when he went in? I think that one problem creeping up on NRM as a result of this is that the high visitor numbers disguise the fact that as time goes by, this nation has fewer and fewer people genuinely interested in railways. The Museum may be trading on its reputation rather than actuality. That is partly the product of anno domini as the old steam generation passes on, and partly because there is nothing to follow the juvenile interest in Thomas the Tank engine. If there is, anywhere, that function is probably being performed by the "preserved" railway, and not by the museum, even though through its collections it is a far better position to give a deep understanding, rather than the superficial attractions of a day out on the A B & C preserved railway.I think that the collections need a vast amount of attention, but that they are not likely to get it for as long as the Museum is seen as a producer of visitor numbers, and is seen as being based upon the interests of anoraks rather than real people. I do not see this changing, unless the Museum gets a truly Messianic director rather than a "safe pair of hands". Ray L Weigh "

Friday, 4 September 2009

Three Schools

Societies, even within Western Europe, exhibit varying responses in their willingness to examine sexual culture, I found it instructive to study this exhibition programme:!OpenDocument (then click Temporary Exhibitions)

SAFE HAVEN 18 February – 23 August 2009 In an era when the nuclear family was seen as the ideal, homosexual men found a certain level of freedom at sea on the ships of the Swedish America Line. The exhibition is based on interviews with homosexual and heterosexual men from the book ‘Those ones’ on the America boats by Arne Nilsson. Safe Haven sheds new light on our maritime cultural heritage, seafaring history and seamen’s lives. The exhibition is produced by the Maritime Museum, Stockholm.

Other temporary exhibitions on the maritime museum circuit of Sweden evidence a similar sensual interest. The reader may wonder what had brought me to this reflection. The linkages are really quite direct and start as far as the NRM is concerned at

At the outset of this blog I indicated a willingness when required to make fair criticism of the NRM and I certainly think it fair to ask whether the chosen image from the NRM's "stunning visuals" does itself justice. Was the original folded, stained, pictured through glass? The message of the chosen image is that this exhibition may become fogged. I hope not. One of the ways in which fogging would be avoided is to co-ordinate fully with what others have offered in the field. The NRM ought to be able to do this. In buying our own Forsythe Collection earlier in 2009, the museum now directly accesses thousands of readily used items (often using larger poster artwork) created for the subject of this exhibition. Many of these have been publicly presented in our book From Tilbury to Tyneside.

Just knocking around a few search terms revealed (some time ago now) that the subject does have a wide appeal and that a collection of North Sea Maritime Museums were themselves examining the theme. A book and an exhibition have resulted. This is called North Sea Passenger Lines. "The ”North Sea Passenger Lines”- project is launched in Hull 16 May as a publication as well as an exhibition. The exhibition is expected to be touring the North Sea until 2012". See

Hopefully by the time of the 10th North Sea History Conference in Gothenburg, 1-3 September 2011, those investigating the subject at the National Railway Museum and Nederlandse Spoorwegen will have closely tied themselves to those doing the same job at maritime museums around the North Sea.

Being a blogger allows one to take some liberties with comment as this entry does and it comes at time when (not unusually) the NRM is facing a period of change. A lot of faces have gone since January 2009 and the director himself is resigning this year. NRM + is a major project to re-present the Great Hall. Do I have pearls of wisdom on this? Not really. Oddly the more I know about the NRM, the less I feel I know. It is a byzantine behemoth and the truth of that for my money comes in the lack of any published staff structure plan so that for the user knowing who does what is a challenge.

Whoever becomes the new NRM director, I wish well and the only advice I can conjure up is a few oddball comments. When the NRM makes much of the idea that outside London it is the most popular UK museum and that also amongst the national museums it offers the best value for money (i.e. its cost per visitor is the lowest), this is a double edged sword. On the one hand, it says that the NRM achieves a lot for a little (this will please its masters). On the other, it means a lot of important behind the scenes work fundamental to the long term life of a museum does not happen. And by that we mean the cataloguing / research without which a museum cannot hope to endure indefinitely. I doubt that those at the NRM would disagree if I said that the Curator does not dominate the museum's agenda. If it were different then there would not be a 25 year backlog in cataloguing (that figure is the museum's). Search Engine is a clear step in the right direction but it now needs the support of intensive and properly staffed and funded projects which bring out the archive collections. For "bring out" translate as catalogued and that on-line. For instance tackling the task of developing access to the Forsythe Collection has revealed that the museum has no theasurus of terms for cataloguing a railway collection. Without a basic tool like this, the task will become a challenge indeed.

In reality the NRM is several complete and diverse operations in one. It is an archive, a library, an engineering workshop, a small railway company with engines for hire, an entertainment complex, even a funfair or giant wheel. Finding a talent who balances all this and does it as part of a government bureaucracy is no small order. And this same person has to meld unionised workers and volunteers with character together. No doubt the job requirements will run on.

I suspect that the best candidate should convince the selection board that they can offer the museum "tough love". By that I mean that they can evidence a real enthusiasm and committment to the subject. That railways really matter to them and that the post is not just another stepping stone in a "museum career". At the same time there should be a willingness to be a very tough nut. I suspect communication within the museum needs improvement. This is both between groups of staff and also ensuring that those developing projects are fully aware of what is happening outside the museum. Communication also means ensuring that when museum staff come before the railway media, they all sing from the same hymnsheet. Anyone who regularly reads Steam Railway or Heritage Railway will know what I mean.

Finally my Three Schools heading. It was an allusion to the multiplicity of views that this debate enables, as well as playing with the gender uncertainty of the Swedish exhibition. But it also speaks to something very pertinent. In Britain three Southern Railway Schools class engines are preserved. One of these is in the national collection. Those who know me will not be surprised when I question this. I think the era of indefinite expansion has gone for museums. Achieving value for money is (and yes, I do think a collection of publicity ephemera does exactly that, when you have 100 leaflets for one poster and exactly the same visual value) very critical today and will remain so. Why then does the museum live with so much duplication with its large exhibits? Each engine is a vast cost in maintenance and storage. When there are private individuals and trusts willing and enthusiastic to do this, why is the nation spending money on the task? That money could be allocated to areas of the subject just as significant and meaningful as the engines but which lack the popular cachet. Icons should always be in the national collection but outside the eye of the railway enthusiast is a Schools iconic? Is a Crab iconic (another two preserved)? Or even a Terrier (another nine exist)? And as for a GWR 28xx (another 15 exist)? Schools, Crabs, Terriers? What percentage of the British population realise they are railway engines? I would be kind and keep the Terrier in the national collection. After all most children (males anyway) recognise Stepney. My daughter does.

When the new appointee takes up their post, it will fascinate me to see whether it is "steady as she goes", "work incrementally on the backlogs", " develop the presentation opportunities", "make greatest use of the site (the" railway lands project")" or whether there is some sense of the "radical". That perhaps the era of endless collecting of big exhibits is not sustainable. Should a full blown HST enter the collection? In its place should funds be found to really exploit the vast reams of treasure that the museum already has in its archive and photo collections? Some will think me biased, but one of the experiences that has anchored this view was when literary gold was falling out of a former Clapham Museum correspondence file whose cataloguing was rudimentary and misleading to be generous (see a much earlier entry).

The reader should realise that often views are expressed to engender debate and I will be fascinated to see whether anyone offers comments and at what tone.