National Railway Museum - Public History MA Placement

Posted on 8 July 2014

Researching Chronology at the National Railway Museum

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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