National Railway Museum - Public History MA Placement

Posted on 8 July 2014

Researching Chronology at the National Railway Museum


My placement at the NRM was all about chronology and the ways it could be used in their Great Hall gallery. Starting the research from scratch I approached the topic from three angles; academic criticism, comparative case studies and audience research.

Inside the National Railway Museum

Chronology can seem like a dry topic but the more I researched the more I realised how influential it can be. It frames many kinds of historical encounter because perceptions of time are at the heart of the public understanding of the past.  So I began to investigate how visitors interact with chronologically organised spaces. I chose several case studies; Riverside Museum of Transport and Travel in Glasgow which eschews chronology completely, Tate Britain whose recent re-hang is strictly chronological, and the Museum of London who have organised their galleries in chronological order but explore themes within these spaces. I got to visit each of these museums and interview their curators.

A Model of Hogwarts

The issue of chronology as a type of over arching narrative was raised by several exhibition designers, one of whom recommended the Warner Bros Harry Potter Studio Tour as an excellent example of a strong frame narrative that allows for intimate stories as well. So as part of my research I got to release my inner Harry Potter fan-girl and found the recommendation was correct. These visits demonstrated that chronology is actually quite a versatile organisational tool and the NRM should be able to make it work for their particular space, collection and audience.

I also got to design my own qualitative research and carry it out with the NRM’s target audiences. Their responses supported my conclusions that the museum-going public are looking for an impression of where things fit in a historical sense.

Behind the Scenes at the NRM

The research was designed to give an unbiased perspective on a much debated topic and inform decisions about the NRM’s future. The brief was quite flexible which, though daunting at first, meant I was able to pursue various sources which suited my own interests as well as the NRM’s concerns. I learned a lot about the management structure of a large museum and the many practical factors which must be considered when designing exhibitions. I found my supervisors encouraging and thoroughly enjoyed the placement, which was the aspect of this MA I had been most looking forward to.

Rachel Whitehead

Rachel Whitehead

MA Public History Placement