21 January 2020 · National Railway Museum

Presenter: Anthony Coulls – Senior Curator, National Railway Museum

Our original speaker from the National Railway Museum (NRM) was unable to attend so we welcomed Anthony Coulls, Senior Curator instead. He explained about the branding exercise that the NRM has undertaken and how this has considerably boosted visitor numbers with an increase of around 14% since the start of the initiative. Only about 5% of visitors to the museum are railway enthusiasts, while the majority are mainly families and tourists who like seeing a locomotive in steam and here they can begin to understand what railways mean to the UK. The museum’s remit is to collect, preserve and/or restore all things railway – supported by the National Heritage Act 1983.

Part of the management of the collection means that what is on display can change from time to time with some items being displayed away from the museum on loan where this is appropriate. Other items may be undergoing restoration elsewhere as the museum cannot do everything on site whether this is at Shildon or at York. Opening Locomotion at Shildon has enabled the museum to protect far more of the collection under cover than previously and in spite of dire predictions that visitors would be few, it has proven to be very successful, with good progress on plans to build another shed ready for 2025. This is also about recognising the importance of maintaining the skills to restore, repair and run vehicles in the collection. With this in mind, there are 20 apprentice places and so far all those completing apprenticeships have gone into employment either with modern railways, on heritage railways or in other engineering fields. It is not just about the large and spectacular eg Flying Scotsman, but also about wagons; one example shown was an old 3ft gauge side tipping wooden wagon from the ironstone industry – another and very early part of the railway story. It is about moving things, engineering, people, industry – as well as looking at past, present and future. There is the issue of what to do when new items come into the collection, what should be preserved from more recent years, and what can be learned from restoration and conservation. One example given was the museum’s ability to rebuild the boiler for the replica Rocket as per the original – in large part thanks to John Rastrick’s notebook from the original trials complete with his diagrams and notes.

Consideration has to be given to whether it is better to run something or preserve and ‘mount’ it and a balance has to be struck as it is not possible to do everything. Where there is more than one of a class of locomotives in existence, then it can be better to keep one running well and the others conserved, rather than keeping all of them running badly. It is clear that visitors to the museum like to get a close look at items in the collection as well as seeing them running. There were many stories about acquisitions and the work required to bring them into good order either for display or running, and how decisions are made for items to be displayed away – perhaps where there is a local connection. The museum has the very first and the very last merry-go-round hopper wagon restored by the apprentices at Shildon. It was on display shortly after restoration when an elderly gentleman in a wheelchair told them that he had made it – just another of the stories tied to the collection.

There is a huge database of the collection and Anthony’s job includes managing it – location, condition etc and recording additional stories and histories wherever possible. Information can come from some surprising sources such as Prince Charles with reminiscences of his experiences with the Royal Train. There are good links between the two sites at Shildon and York as well as relationships with other museums and heritage railways, both in the UK and abroad.

When the museum was asked if they would like a Eurostar powercar, they had not considered that this would be available so soon as it was only 19 years old. It was, of course, accepted and it has been restored for the NRM by Eurostar apprentices, promoting engineering skills for the future. Was Flying Scotsman a waste of taxpayers’ money? Love it or hate it, it appeals. The actual cost to each taxpayer is very small as much was raised by donations, and even now it still appeals to the wider public. Although not such a spectacular sight, the 2ft gauge WWII Simplex locomotive is equally important. Then there are diesels and electrics too – all important and justifying a place in the collection, not just for the outer appearance but to preserve the power equipment inside.

Many people said that Shildon would not last but it will be 16 years old this year with plans for the future. The two sites at York and Shildon work very well together with some exhibits moving between the two. Railways have changed the world and the museum curates an important part of that story.

There was no time for the usual questions and answers as this excellent presentation filled the evening without effort, with the interest of the audience held the whole time.