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.

1 comment:

  1. Update: I referred rather critically in this post to an NRM press release and its use of Harwich imagery. By 6th January 2010 that press release had been removed and a replacement was using much more appropriate imagery of a Thames barge passing the ferries lined up at Harwich.