Robert Forsythe says…”Whither National Railway Museum?”
An Outsider’s view
On 19th September 2012, the National Railway Museum announced that its Director Steve Davies was resigning and that Paul Kirkman from the DCMS would become an interim director for a year. This followed a summer of torrid headlines embracing “Nepotism at National Museum” (the Daily Telegraph 22nd August 2012), a loss of £200,000 on one event and a series of missed deadlines and failed financial forecasts in the restoration of the 4472 Flying Scotsman engine. That very day two Gresley A4s class engines stood on the quayside at Halifax Nova Scotia awaiting shipment back to the country of their birth at the instigation of Mr Davies’ management.
Who is Robert Forsythe to say?
Robert Forsythe was born in Norwich in 1959. He grew up with the ruins of the Midland and Great Northern Joint all around. He also grew up as the son of a father who was totally dedicated to maritime preservation. One of Robert’s earliest memories is of a hurried visit to Cantley Sugar Beet Factory to see the sailing wherry Albion sunk laden with sugar beet. He soon became interested in railways as well and came to Durham as a student. He did voluntary work at Beamish, obtained an Ironbridge Institute Diploma in Industrial Archaeology. In his first museum job he worked for Andrew Scott. He was curator of the Scottish Maritime Museum in Irvine at the age of 26. There he met Fiona McMurray whose railway pedigree through both parents was impeccable. They married and since 1991 he has worked freelance in the Tyne Valley. He has been a member and a director of various heritage organisations. Once married, they created The Forsythe Collection of Transport and Tourist Ephemera. In 2009 the NRM purchased the collection, all 100 shelved metres . Negotiations with the Museum to purchase the Collection occupied a number of years. It gave them both an insight into the NRM process at work. In the material collected was publicity material for 4472 Flying Scotsman; from 2004 Robert has followed that project with interest.
A National Railway Museum is not a preserved railway. It shares with them the uphill task of preventing extinction. However, its remit has to be far broader. It is a subject museum and thereby its task is the preservation and presentation of a much wider canvas than any preserved railway. It is set up to tackle areas of interest which do not concern a preserved railway, telling the story of technological innovation and development, accounting for the role of the railway worker, memorialising railway culture all these tasks go beyond simply operating steam engines.
The National Railway Museum has grown like Topsy. Its roots stretch back before World War 1. Growing out of the 1925 Stockton & Darlington centenary the LNER created the York Railway Museum. In 1975 through an amalgamation with the British Transport Collection at Clapham the present National Railway Museum as a branch of the London based Science Museum (now NMSI) came into being. Amalgamating collections is one recipe for subsequent difficulties. By no means all the tasks demanded of that amalgamation have been undertaken in 2012. York is 188 miles from London. The new Railway Museum was not given, and has never had its own set of trustees. The seeds of the drift in governance were there. Is it the lack of close interaction of a group of local trustees that enabled Mr Davies to very rapidly develop the programme to repatriate the A4s? Is it the same lack that has enabled the 4472 Flying Scotsman restoration to drift over a long period of time into the quagmire that it has become?
For many years it has been said (rightly) that it was the Museum’s task to tell the story of the railway. Whilst the cathedral like nature of the York displays is a compelling attraction, in itself that has not made it easy to undertake this task. This is why the NRM+ project was developed. The failure of its bid for money in 2011 was a serious blow and one which Mr Davies (in post then a year) has had to react to. It would be instructive for the Museum and for the wider enthusiast community to know why that bid failed. The task remains as pressing as it has been at any time. If it is accepted that the Museum is in difficulties, a useful document would be a review of all funding bids made in the last decade and their success or failure.
An indication of the weakness of the Museum is the difficulty it has had in managing budgets. This has been well publicised through the 2012 RailFest and 4472 stories this year. Is part of that weakness down to staff turnover? A Museum thrives on the intense knowledge of its staff. If staff turnover rapidly in senior positions then detailed records are essential. At the NRM , another part of the self examination which should take place is an analysis of staff turnover in managerial positions. This would be hampered by the lack of a published Museum staff structure. That lack has led Robert to brand the Museum ‘A Byzantine Organisation’.
Unless York is in your blood, it is not easy to establish who does what or who to contact. Other national museums like the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich publish their staff structure (http://www.rmg.co.uk/upload/pdf/NMM_organisation_chart_Feb_2012.pdf). This element of staff invisibility connects to a trait of poor communication. In our own experience and in that of others we know letters and emails can be unanswered in number. In our case this led to cross words directly with Mr Davies. A national institution could easily purchase e-mail handling software which would audit that process and ensure that every enquiry started with an acknowledgement. During July 2011 the Newcastle Journal published a story founded on this lack of response. Nothing to do with us personally.
Another evidence of failure in process comes in studying the Museum’s on-line object catalogue. Go on-line, open up the Museum object catalogue and see the variety of terms used to describe the same class of item. Effective cataloguing demands commitment to a thesaurus. The creation of such a standard requires skilled input and senior management commitment over time. Unless a developed catalogue is in place, a museum of this size becomes unintelligible. It does not know what it has, items can be lost or even stolen. This has been a problem at York over many decades (cf The Weardale Coach and associated artefacts).
There has been a lot of technical museological discussion thus far. Where all the chat about which engines to restore next: Gazelle or Shannon? How many diesels should there be? Those are fascinating discussions but they are not at the core of what a museum does. Actually there is an argument that the museum should preserve less and manage more. Manage more? Part of the Museum’s task must be as the final arbiter and back stop in the process of what survives that is important to Britain’s railway heritage. There can be no denying that the core icons of that heritage justify being in the National Collection, Locomotion, Rocket, City of Truro, Mallard, a Deltic, these cannot be dispensed with. A Deltic? Seven Deltics survive, two in the National Collection. 6/35ths of the Gresley A4 class exist, one in the National Collection. In the middle of a period of austerity, with the Museum’s ability to work to budget under question, with a list of potential restorations longer than the preverbial arm, is it any wonder London eyebrows rise at the thought of shipping two more A4s back to Britain? Ten Terriers survive. Why does the NRM need one in its collection? A wonderful design certainly, but all the National Collection need do is to exercise over sight to guarantee that the ten does not become zero. Nineteen Bulleid Light Pacifics survive, so why does the NRM have to have one? Is it just the power of the name Winston Churchill, is that justification alone; does that extend to “KOYLI”?
Doubtless this line of thinking will not be popular. But to adopt it does not imperil the existence of any unique artefact . It still enables the Museum through a pattern of relationships to mount spectacular displays. This year’s RailFest was certainly that. Adopting a strategy of reduction would focus the Museum team back on what is it that they are uniquely and specially qualified to do. Tell the tale of rail in Britain, curate world class collections many of which are not prime movers.
Without a doubt the Museum is going to experience a period of soul searching. Instead of an enthusiast a DCMS plant will run the Museum for at least a year for sure. On paper his credentials are impressive to link the Museum back into the probity which ‘London’ has to stand for. If he can show empathy for the subject and its community, he stands a chance of success. He is going to confront some deeply entrenched patterns of behaviour at the Museum. This decision, although announced suddenly, cannot have come from the blue. Sometime must have elapsed in which DCMS took the decision that the way to deal with the headlines confronting them was to install their own man. The Science Museum was not offered a resignation to which the response was ‘Thanks and now we commence the normal recruitment process’. Something far more dramatic has happened.
Going forward although 2012 will undeniably be remembered as a traumatic year for the NRM, it is very unlikely that it is fatal! These fracas are actually part and parcel of preservation, amidst its inherent contradictions. Open up old Museum minutes and the passions of the York and Darlington factions can astonish from over a century ago. That, thankfully, has been neatly resolved in the NRM being now at both York and Shildon.
Various targets for reflection have been suggested, the review of funding bids, the staff structure. The Museum is already promising a detailed engineering review of 4472’s restoration. Let us hope that is readily available and that maybe the opportunity is taken to research and tell the restoration story of other key artefacts. This would demonstrate the difficult nature of the decisions which the Museum has to take at the best of times and enable weakness in process to be identified and confronted.
A similar research exercise could produce a full history of the Museum. It would be a riveting read. Museums exist to record objects and their creators as they are. That history’s power would be certain as long as all those involved in the Museum over the last 50 years or so were free to speak!
(Picture from York in February 2007 4472 in bits).