Monday, 31 May 2010

NRM+ and loans

I found myself reading two passages of NRM "policy" recently and reflecting on how they worked together. In the NRM Review Spring 2010 p7 the new director Steve Davies writes about NRM+. This is the current flagship project to redesign the Great Hall "thematically".

I quote "Another element receiving major attention is that of what to do with the stock displaced by the NRM+ project. Partners are currently being sought.....". The following sentences make clear that a quite extensive loan operation will be required to rehouse elements of the collection displaced by the new displays.

The second statement appears in Railway Magazine July 2010 p6. One of the museum's registars Helen Batchelor: "In order to meet our deadlines (for NRM+), we will not be able to take forward any new loan requests for exhibitions or events until December 2012". At face value there is some tension. Possibly to be reconciled in making a difference between timespans. Whilst the museum is fixing new homes for a number of exhibits it will not support a programme of short term loans.

Some questions flow from these statements. On occasion in the past the museum's press statements have been at odds with themselves. Many large organisations operate a press regime where all statements to press by officers have to be approved first through the press office to ensure apparent tensions like this do not appear. I wonder just what the NRM policy is about museum officers speaking to the press?

A larger question perhaps relates to a stock comment about the museum. Its aspirations can exceed its abilities. In the same feature by Steve Davies "NRM+....will see the museum adopt a thematic approach............that will set the standard for museums around the world to emulate". No shortage of aspiration there. As our blog has previously suggested the Dutch national railway museum at Utrecht undertook a comprehensive redisplay in which the thematic approach was given its full head. In no way do I deny the case for doing this. However as the Dutch option shows, the result tends to be very expensive. My understanding is that the Dutch spent far more money than the NRM is likely to. One reason for the expense is the sheer size of locomotive exhibits and deploying them within themed displays.

I rather think I am of the opinion that undertaking a themed display within the Great Hall is to insert a fundamental tension. The Great Hall was a locomotive shed. It is a cathedral like structure and the large exhibits behave like icons or major art pieces. They are objects of worship. It will require some monumental design to manage to retain the atmosphere of the Great Hall and insert a comprehensively themed display. I am not saying it cannot be done just that this is a great challenge and likely to cost accordingly. One wonders whether there were other solutions to producing a themed display about Britain's railway history elsewhere on the York site?

Meanwhile whilst this is being resolved, what of the NRM's other work? As the opening quotes indicate, evidently an amount of normal service is being dispensed with. The problem here is posed by the question just when does the NRM offer normal service? There is always (and probably always will be) some special factor which distorts the situation. From relatively recent times I think of the creation of Search Engine or the re-roofing of the Great Hall. I know I have a bundle of correspondence with a variety of explanations that have been offered for why "x" cannot be done. They've included Britain's Olympic Bid and yes NRM+.

The real reason why the NRM at times simply struggles to do what most folk would think should be its bread and butter like loaning exhibits is that it does not employ the right number of specialist staff. And as this blog has shown previously that is because it is the national museum that does the most for the least. A verdict which I would not be completely proud of.

I don't doubt at all Steve Davies determination to up the NRM's game and he comes with a background of subject interest and achievement to suggest he can make a difference. But to succeed he is going to have to eliminate some structural conflicts buried deep within the NRM and these comments about future loans are possibly a window into those.