Exhibition research for "Speed" at the National Railway Museum, York

Posted on 13 February 2013

The placement aspect of the Public History MA was one key element that drew me to the course. I was intrigued by the opportunity to include practical experience in the heritage environment with my studies, and was especially attracted by the list of possible partners.

‌‌‌The placement aspect of the Public History MA was one key element that drew me to the course. I was intrigued by the opportunity to include practical experience in the heritage environment with my studies, and was especially attracted by the list of possible partners. The University of York has developed strong contacts with local heritage centres, and because of this have been able to create interesting partnerships which are fulfilling for both student and placement provider.

The placement offered by the National Railway Museum (NRM) was particularly appealing to me. I wish to pursue a career in exhibition research and design, and was grabbed by the chance to delve into the extensive archives at the Museum and create a resource that would contribute to the creation of an exhibition. I felt that this opportunity was unique in the access it gave to the collections and the insight it provided into the construction of exhibitions in a national museum.

Inside the National Railway Museum

The initial brief was to conduct research into the extensive photographic collection to select images that represented the theme of speed. These images would be included in the new exhibition to be installed in the Art Gallery at the beginning of July, and will look to form part of the Museum’s summer focus on speed to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Nigel Gresley’s A4 Pacific Mallard’s record-breaking 126mph run in 1938. In addition to photographs representing speed, the provider hoped that the placement holder would collate relevant information that would contribute to the overall story of the exhibition. This story focused on the representation of speed in posters commissioned by the Big Four railway companies, London and North Eastern Railway (LNER), London, Midlands and Scottish Railway (LMS), Great Western Railway (GWR), and Southern Railway (SR).

January 2013 – Introductions

I was invited for an initial meeting with Ellen Tait, Interpretation Developer in the Exhibition and Design department who was to supervise me during my placement. She gave me more information on the project itself, the Art Gallery exhibition, and the approaching Mallard celebrations. As a large museum with an organised volunteer structure, I also completed the necessary safety talks and briefings on the Railway Museum, which included information on how it functions as part of the larger Science Museum Group. It was interesting to understand how such a large museum works, how volunteers form a key element of the workforce and how the Museum relates to the group of museums that form part of the Science Museum Group. This insight was wonderful, as previously I had only volunteered in smaller museums, and so the opportunity to work within a museum that brings in over 800,000 visitors as year and has a volunteer workforce of 300 was fascinating.

January to March – Research

Ellen gave me some indication of the types of questions she wanted me to ask in the course of my research, but I was allowed a relatively free reign in the direction I took, as long as I remained strongly connected to the overarching theme of the exhibition. As an intern, this was a great experience, because I was able to explore the vast image collection and follow paths that interested me and turned up exciting materials. The period within which to focus my research was wide, from the 1920s to the present day, and as such, I was keen to explore in the photograph collection, periods that were underrepresented in the poster collection, which primarily represents the interwar years.

My first step was to delve into the context surrounding the promotion of the railways since the 1920s. The NRM’s archive and reading room, Search Engine, was my main port of call as they hold a diverse collection of material . The library collection there provided the basis of my contextual research. This initial period of research lasted from mid January to the beginning of February, on the basis of one to two days per week. I was keen to be as comprehensive as I could in this initial stage, as it would enable me to connect stories and themes across the time period, and would therefore make a useful basis for constructing the exhibition later on.

Having conducted this background reading, I then began to look into the collections further. I had had an initial meeting with the Image Archivist at Search Engine, Lorna Frost, who was able to give me some helpful pointers to access the image collections. I therefore began my research into the image collections with the most straightforward tool available to the research team, the image database iBase. iBase collates thumbnail images from the collection into a simple database, which one can explore using key-word searches and therefore gave me an easy way to get into the collection. I did encounter some challenges when using the system, as some images did not have a thumbnail so I could not see what the image featured. In addition, some search terms brought up a huge number of hits, and in some cases returned hits that were of little use to the project. These were minor problems and I soon overcome them as I became more familiar with the system. Overall, iBase proved very useful, and I was able to collect over 100 photographs that strongly represented the theme of speed. It was an exciting moment to see the list growing and the resource beginning to come together.

During this process, I continued to add new background research as I collected images of particular engines and lines. This research enabled me to present a concise resource combining relevant contextual information and images to my supervisor at the end of the placement, which she could use for the final exhibition. I discovered some wonderful images of the A4 Pacific engines, such as Mallard and her sister engines, but was excited to find photographs and posters relating to more recent rail developments including a prototype high speed train (APT) in an aerodynamic test lab, and photographs from the Hitachi Rail Maintenance Centre at Ashford in Kent.

March – Handover

My placement lasted from January to mid-March. Ellen and I meet at the end of the placement to handover the research I had collected. Ellen was keen to get my feedback on which of the photographs I had found I particularly liked or felt carried the theme of speed very strongly. We discussed which contexts I felt would be particularly important to the exhibition. I was keen to stress the modern developments in rail travel, because I felt that the more recent photographs provided a good access point for the museum audience. Seeing an engine they were familiar with would hopefully create a lasting impression about the development of speed in rail travel, and would give an easy access point for visitors of all ages to explore the messages of the exhibition. We also discussed the poster collection, and I highlighted examples that I particularly liked and felt were good representations of speed advertising. I was lucky to be able to contribute in this way; having put a great deal of time into researching and collecting images, it was good to have a say in which images made it through the exhibit.

Conclusions

I thoroughly enjoyed my experiences during my placement. It was exciting to be given such an insight into the workings of the design department at such a large museum, and to understand the processes of creating an exhibition in that environment. I enjoyed the freedom I was given to follow my own lines of research, whilst still feeling very much part of the whole process and I am excited to see the end result when the exhibition opens on 4th July. It was a thoroughly rewarding experience and a wonderful opportunity to contribute to an exhibition. I have been inspired to think about the role of art collections in science museums, which I am continuing to look at in more detail in my dissertation. The thesis will involve conducting audience research to understand the public response to the Art Gallery, and will set this in the wider academic discussion of the inclusion of art in science and technology museums and centres in the UK. I anticipate that the Museum’s Mallard 75 celebrations will be hugely popular, as queues implied on the first day of its opening on the 3rd July.

Joanna Bradley

MA Public History
Public History Placement