Britain’s National Railway Museum: Part 5

Three Museums


Now (at last) I propose to say something about the NRM as it is today, following my first visit with this purpose in mind that I made last year. This proved difficult and gave me so much cause for reflection that I not only revisited York again this year but also visited two other transport museums so I could reflect on what I had seen at York with the benefit of having something to compare it with. It then became apparent that it would be better to offer my views of those museums as well, so sharing my comparisons with readers. I do not know whether I have quite achieved this but I trust this makes some kind of sense.

When I began I wanted to say something of the NRM’s aims and objectives and how it fits into today’s preservation scene but it was impossible to include any of that here and I will include it in a final wrap up essay.

I shall proceed by reviewing three transport museums and comparing and contrasting my findings, and then finish up with some observations about what has happened at York and why I believe it may have slightly lost its way. The three museums are ‘Steam’ at Swindon, the National Railway Museum at York, and the Riverside Museum (of Transport) in Glasgow. All three provide an opportunity for several hours of enjoyment, but I am interested more in what is preserved and displayed and how.


The layout of any museum inevitably affects the way visitors appreciate the exhibits. Of the three museums being reviewed, both York and Glasgow have unconstrained visitor flows whilst Swindon had only one entrance and (on the whole) a single route through the museum, though one did not feel ones movement was unduly regulated. Both York and Glasgow, on the other hand, extended the free flow of people to displays that were not tightly organized either, so defining any kind of fixed route would not be feasible.

Swindon is the smallest of the three museums under review. The whole museum is located within old railway workshop premises and this is made a major feature of the display. Swindon is really two museums. Firstly it is a museum paying homage to the vast railway workshops that once dominated the town and at one time employed 12,000 people on a site of 326 acres. This part exploits the atmosphere and some of the structural parts of the building to set out how the works developed and what it did. This is done by a series of cameo displays and workshop exhibits showing locomotive and carriage repairs and there is an area explaining the art of locomotive building which took place in the vast erecting shop. The displays with the exhibits (or replicas) are augmented with large photographs and background workshop sounds which work quite well to give the impression of space (and it would have been very easy to hash this up).


Once past the locomotive, one proceeds into what is effectively the second museum which is about the history and operation of the Great Western Railway. The visitor is less constrained in this section and having got past the history display one can wander about more or less at will for a while. There are quite a lot of exhibits relating to operation pre-1948 and relatively few steam locomotives, which were well-located and generally showed off in some kind of context. I particularly liked the signal cabin display where one could, under instruction from a video display, operate the full sized levers to shunt a train. There was a steam locomotive driving simulator (with sound effects and a shaking footplate) but the controls appeared to have no impact on the view ahead displayed through the cab window. There was a replica station building and platform with the inside of a proper booking office that could be inspected. On the way out there were further themed displays, with much space devoted to GWR publicity practices.


This view overlooks the station display at Swindon. Some attempt has been made to include most features found at a real station (though stopping short of a name board and plausible lighting). Some of the station rooms are used for displays about GWR publicity.

On the whole the displays were well thought out, substantially contextual, well lit (though a little more thought might have gone into spot light location) and the information panels were plentiful and well-located.

As observed in earlier articles, Swindon does not have very many locomotives, but from its own resources and those of the national collection it has a great deal of other material and this has been put to very good use. Perhaps, dare I say it, the lack of locomotives has been helpful, not only in requiring greater thought about what the museum tries to achieve but in not cluttering up the space with very large and awkward objects which as their numbers rise the additional information to be gleaned drops appreciably. I dare say space is never sufficient in museums of this kind and the amount of non rolling stock material is prodigious.

One can hardly describe every object, but describing themes is possible because of the way they are grouped. In the workshop section there are helpful descriptions of the growth of the works and these can be directly related to the building in which this is housed. The challenge does not arise at Glasgow where the building is new, and is hardly commented on at York following the reconstruction of the Grand Hall which stripped out most of the obvious railway features (except the surviving turntable). The displays then turn to what the works did and how it functioned and this provides the opportunity for several set pieces showing the bureaucracy at work using recovered materials set up as offices, stores and so on. I observed people stopping to look around and reading the display panels in areas that could have been any old industrial premises and not specifically railway premises. Of course, I can remember offices like this myself, but most youngsters may be surprised at all this stuff—and not a computer in sight (though there was a comptometer). How successful this is I cannot say, but the importance of a rigidly operated set of processes, paper based, was critical when the works alone held perhaps 100,000 components and was responsible for many thousands of locomotives and carriages. No railway could function without all this going on in the background and it seems to me that the attempt to hint at the scale of this is worthwhile.

The workshop areas I found interesting and a certain amount of the equipment with its belt drives has been saved. The carriage construction area was helpful, with a part constructed carriage visible and the loco repair area was shown during wartime which provided the opportunity to introduce women workers and wartime work. There were nice touches of unusual items shown in context such as the list of works hooter codes and times they were given.


Views of the various workshop spaces at Swindon

The final part of the ‘workshop’ section was occupied by the splendid apparition of Caerphilly Castle, as though the locomotive had just been completed and was about to be dispatched to its depot. It has virtually a gallery to itself. This was a significant decision given inevitable demands on space, but given what the museum is about it seems to me entirely justifiable. The space leaves plenty of room to drink in the view and take reasonable photographs. These days virtually everyone has a camera and wants to record what they have seen: this was not so important a point half a century ago.


Caerphilly Castle (like the other locos here) is actually part of the national collection and could once be viewed in the land transport gallery at the Science Museum in London. The underneath is accessible from steps at each end and is well lit. Unfortunately this requires guards around the access steps which slightly interferes with the splendid view one would otherwise get.

I took the view that even within the limitations of space and available exhibits, if I had gone in knowing virtually nothing about the workshops then I would have learnt a lot.

The first gallery in the main part of the museum effectively dealt with the company’s history. This is a huge challenge given the company’s size, long life and diverse interests and I wonder if this was a tad ambitious. One challenge (among several) is that railway exhibits usually have some particular function in time and do not on their own reveal much about a company history. The centrepiece is the North Star loco replica, but around the walls this zone was more heavily reliant on display boards than others. I would have liked to see more maps showing the growth of the company over time, and a family tree showing how all the companies that later became part of the GWR came together and when (apologies if it was there and I missed it).


This zone is called Building the Railway but includes something of its development too. There is some good material here but maybe it is not the most successful use of it.

Much of the rest of the museum was set out by theme and these are shown on the map at the beginning of this section. A welcome feature was the space given over to goods. It will be appreciated that much of the income earned from railways came from goods traffic but this is rarely given great prominence because many passengers are not so familiar with goods services (I would hazard a guess that there are railway users today who have never seen a goods train). In 1934, to choose a date I have to hand, the big four companies made £78m from goods traffic of all kinds compared with under £50m from passengers. Exhibits included several goods vehicles, a brake van, a goods truck being loaded and a goods delivery vehicle (I must point out that before ‘white van man’ appeared, the railways delivered most goods and parcels to people’s door or business and provided warehousing and delivery services for many companies. They were a crucial part of the economy.


The amount of space devoted to goods is entirely appropriate given its importance and diversity though I could see that perhaps even a little more was possible. Of course, the reduction and upheaval to goods services during 1960s and 1970s is omitted as this was long after the GWR ceased. The display above is one of several devoted to goods and descriptions do not confine themselves to the vehicles.

Of omissions there were glaring areas. Track was conspicuous by how little was said of it and how little was on show. It is a failing of all transport museums I have yet visited and seems perverse given that railways are ways upon which are laid rails: the hint is in the name. Perhaps they are not thought interesting by the great minds who run our museums, or perhaps they imagine the public isn’t interested. The point is that rails and the way they are laid are important, indeed crucial, to the operation of railways and it is up to museum curators to earn their money by finding a way to make them interesting — I do not ask for a track museum (though I would like to see one) but I would like transport museums to show a little more interest in showing off a few key technical developments and I know for a fact there is no shortage of the stuff to draw from. Railways were (and some think still are) at the cutting edge of technology. Why must this be kept a secret? (I echo what historian and academic Jack Simmons was saying in 1972, apparently without result.)

In conclusion I believe a visit to this museum by someone attentive, but without very much knowledge of railways, would get a good grounding about pre-WW2 railway work in general and the GWR in particular. It is not perfect (perfection is probably unachievable) but the museum sets out to tell a clear story and uses its exhibits to do most of the hard work. There is no shortage of background information boards and there are some video units and other electronic display equipment, if anyone feels the urge to use it, but it is not—as in some museums—intrusive. I thought it was all rather well done.


Upon entering the NRM from the station one is swept ahead into what is called Station Hall, a space into which the original museum expanded some years after opening. To give some idea of scale, Station Hall on its own is actually a little larger than the GWR museum at Swindon and accounts for about a third of the area of the NRM York site.


This map shows the general arrangement of the NRM, by far the largest of the three museums.  Since the museum is not rigorously divided into particular areas the internal labelling presumably reflects someone’s opinion about where supposed favourites are located, though the selection (for example ‘milk tank’) intrigues more than informs. Reference to the workshop and store are on a separate map in same leaflet.

The intent of the Station Hall layout, as I understand it, was to be able to display some of the locos and rolling stock in a realistic station environment by making use of the platforms in what had been a large goods transfer shed. I would describe this as a partial success in that the locos and rolling stock can be viewed from platform height enabling visitors to see into vehicles and generally view things as passengers would have viewed them. It was only on my second visit that I discovered against the wall on the west side of the hall another isle that was not very obvious or inviting; in here lurked a number of interesting goods trucks and road vehicles, but I felt the lighting in this isle was awful and the orange cast hardly showed items at their best and made photographing anything a serious challenge. The gloomy lighting did not serve to draw people into this area and I was completely undisturbed by other visitors whilst looking around this area.

Railway goods traffic provided a valuable sources of income and involved the use of hundreds of types of vehicle, sometimes of a specialist nature. In 1934 there were over 600,000 goods-carrying vehicles in use, excluding a similar number of privately-owned vehicles that became part of the British Railways fleet in 1948 (when wagons excluding brake vans totalled 1.1 million). The catalogue suggests the York collection amounts to 13 wagons and 3 brake vans. Eight of these are in a fairly remote part of Station Hall where they can be viewed from track level.


This part of the goods section is arranged to show typical small goods and typical handling plant and delivery vehicles. It is very unlikely different companies’ railway vehicles would be seen together like this and it might be better to arrange the display around one company’s asset and put the others together nearby with a generic explanation about what was going on (explanations about goods handling were a bit thin).

Not putting them in one of the platforms is perfectly understandable and enables some context to be added with piles of goods and several small road vehicles that would be meaningless if showed separately. The area is easy to miss and not especially signed as far as I  could see. Once in, however, the area probably had the most atmosphere of any part of the museum. There were odd pieces of interpretation but labelling was done in a rather quaint way with large tied-on tags unique to this particular section. The goods gallery, for want of another term, would have benefited from a more comprehensive introduction in the dead space to explain the general nature of goods traffic, how important it was and how it operated, particularly all the handling it got and the huge logistical operation that underpinned it.

This is the more important because it is not how things are done now. Once more I make the charge that so few vehicles are shown when so many were operated, compared to the comparative proportion of preserved locomotives. We should not forget that while young people today are used to ‘white van man’ delivering stuff to one’s door, there was a time before the 1970s when this service was substantially provided by British Rail road vehicles or those of its railway predecessors. This point is really not pressed.


A view of an apparent goods train, though a milk tank is an unlikely vehicle in a goods shed. The yellow cast is from the high pressure sodium lighting which is an interesting choice and rather gloomy (and not used in main part of shed). The purpose of the overhead signs is unexplained. They may have been left over from goods shed days.

There were some goods/parcels objects on display on the platform area. These felt rather contrived. Some (like cranes) had clearly been left from the building’s days as a transit shed but were usually unlabelled and visitors might have puzzled why such things would be on a passenger station. Other stuff was of the kind that went on passenger trains and labelling was very variable. Some objects were unlabelled and I began harbouring the uncharitable suspicion they were there for decoration whilst other items were copiously labelled, sometimes in odd places though findable by anyone interested.


This view (looking towards the restaurant) has me puzzled. Railways had been in the container business for many years and I was pleased to see these apparently fine examples. However, there are no explanatory labels (a huge missed opportunity) and  they are both decked out as small sitting rooms, with an invitation to sit. A furnished fish container: what is going on? Once more I began to wonder if these quite important elements of the railway story were just decorative and I was unable to find these items in the inventory, so I suppose they were. They might even be replicas as I note castors have been added. Surely we can make more educational use of them than this, even if they are used as an object of fun? It isn’t as though there is an actual container of this kind in the collection.

Despite thinking some small improvements could be made, I felt the goods display, though modest, was a good effort and one of the few areas of the museum where effort had been made to show off objects in a fairly realistic context.

Less successful, at platform level, was the attempt to recreate the impression of a station. It is true that the railings and platform ends were realistic enough and added some atmosphere, but no attempt had been made to provide or fit out the usual station facilities such as station offices, a booking office or anything like that (there was an implausibly located ticket booth but not contemporary with the vehicles). Many exhibits and associated displays were unlabelled.


An example of one of the station hall platforms. This particular view shows the huge potential of this substantial space but I fear it is only partly realized. I know it is mere detail but I would not myself have chosen British Railways post 1948 (North Eastern Region) signage as my standard here when virtually all the exhibits are half a century earlier.


Quite a lot of empty space.

There was quite a large amount of unused space which I suspect may pander to the needs of corporate hospitality, or perhaps school parties, but later reflection made me think more could be done with this display area, even allowing for the cafe area which was placed in the middle of it.

There is a lot of good stuff in Station Hall but I still felt that opportunities were being missed and despite the effort that had obviously gone into it more was and still is possible. Reconsidering how things might appear to (and be comprehended by) the visitors might induce some modest changes, including perhaps some kind of strategic introduction to what was being shown and why. And more context is possible by using material languishing a hundred yards away in store; there is enough for a proper ticket office at the very least.

Returning to the main entrance one discovers the subway under Leeman Road that leads to the Great Hall. I looked, but did not at first see on my way in, for any signs leading to this and wondered if any visitors might miss it (there was a large sign beyond the line of glass doors but one could easily miss it). The Great Hall is of course the location of the original 1975 museum which then comprised a converted engine shed and two turntables as already described. This original set of features at least provided the early museum with a railway-like character that might have rivalled Swindon, but the expensive roof problem resulted in what became in effect a modern building which has no particular character.


A general view of the Grand Hall giving some indication of its size (there is much more material out of view to the right, too). The high speed and overhead electric material is grouped together (though remote from other electric vehicles) but the layout makes it challenging to offer a coherent narrative about railway development from the plentiful exhibits present and I did not detect much attempt to do so. In background at first floor level are the library and research facilities. Here was once located a mass of small exhibits, many adding to the comprehension of the railway story, but this is now mostly in store and the paucity of small material is noticeable.

If I might start off with a general observation: the museum is dominated by locomotives and most of them are steam locomotives. According to the inventory there are 37 locomotives on site at York of which 27 are steam, 7 are diesel and 3 are electric. This includes the non-British material but excludes both Rocket replicas. This does seem rather a lot and I wonder how many locomotives are necessary in order to explain the basic working principles, the way they allowed railways to develop and important technical highlights.

One of the turntables has been retained and about half the large exhibits sit on the stub roads outwith the turntable. The turntable provides vehicle access with the outside world via the end glass doors. Having now seen a number of museums I have begun to dislike the turntable arrangement as it seems very wasteful of space. Apart from the substantial loss of space caused by the turntable itself the fan arrangement places the leading end of the exhibits a tad too close whilst the far ends are spaced some way apart. This makes it quite difficult to appreciate the vehicles fully, makes lighting (and photography) difficult and wastes a lot of space at the rear, not helped by the building being rectangular; the rears were also rather dingy.


The non-accessible turntable dominates, somewhat restricting the view. It sits, uncomfortably, in a rectangular building making the stub roads different lengths and allowing only quite short vehicles on some roads. This seriously impacts on ability to locate vehicles in any logical order. The museum lighting relies heavily on daylight flooding in from south end and central roof, illuminating vehicle fronts whilst sides and rear are comparatively gloomy. When the museum was opened, one turntable had a rotating wooden deck which the public had access to, so not so much space was wasted.


In order to make at least some productive use of the turntable a locomotive has been placed here. I cannot deny it looks splendid but of course this is partly because while it is on the turntable it is not surrounded by clutter. The down side, inevitably, it that it blocks the view of all the vehicles on the far side.


In these images one can see the compromises necessary. The fronts of the vehicles are hard to admire head on as they are so close to the turntable barrier, which is just in shot. On the other hand the slightly gloomy space at the rear is perhaps excessive and I thought more use might be made of it. The fanning makes it quite hard to appreciate some of the larger vehicles properly.

There was no route plan but as the exhibits seemed to be displayed almost randomly (from the visitor’s viewpoint) this may not have mattered much. The conjunction of displays seemed illogical with the early railway material freely mixed up with more modern material. Labelling was sporadic, with many smaller items unlabelled and even several of the large exhibits lacking any kind of description.

One of the most important exhibits was the sectioned Merchant Navy locomotive which provides a valuable insight into how steam locomotives worked (the sectioned Rocket replica makes an interesting contrast but was sufficiently far away to make comparison difficult). The display included a good description about how steam locomotives worked, but explanations of diesel and electric propulsion were, by contrast, lacking.


One of the most instructive exhibits at the museum. An information sheet with a photo and the key to the numbered parts would have been really helpful. I thought of doing one myself.


This sectioned replica of Rocket represents a very early steam loco whilst Ellerman Lines represents a very late one. Although the locos are quite close, the sectioned areas of neither are visible from the other and it would be much more instructive to place them adjacent so that the internal workings can both be seen and contrasted.

The labelling of the steam locomotives in the great hall appeared to follow completely different principles to labelling in the station hall. Labelling in the latter appeared more closely aimed at general visitors whilst many of those in the great hall seemed aimed at loco enthusiasts already imbued with knowledge which it cannot be assumed everyone will have. For example, an exhibit label for the Lancashire and Yorkshire tank loco described it as ‘the only 2-4-2 tank engine preserved’. Why is this in the least important and where is the explanation for why wheel arrangements vary and some are more suitable for particular purposes than others?  Indeed, is the Whyte wheel arrangement system described anywhere? There were several places where I felt the opportunity to provide explanation for why things were done was lacking. Although the displays are not solely devoted to rolling stock the other material is dotted about haphazardly and rarely in context with any of the exhibits.


Four examples of labelling. At top is what appears to be the oldest style of label which adopts a fairly technical approach. The second is typical of the style adopted in Station Hall where non-technical labels are the norm and an attempt is made to describe what the object is for and where it was used. The third, found in Great Hall, adopts the explanatory style but with some technical detail added (I query the suggestion that red and gold livery was ever used on the Coronation Scot when running 1937-39). The fourth style is another variant. I’m not sure this label is as accurate as it could be and it is surely a quarter century since boat trains last ran? I wonder how often labels are reviewed. Other labelling styles may be found too.

Some examples (above) are given of the various types of label in use within the museum. We can’t expect any museum to be constantly updating every label but the variety of styles and whole approach to labelling seems to have changed substantially and to have quite such a mixture seems most undesirable. Personally I find the labels that describe what the exhibits are and how they are used to be the most useful, but there is surely benefit to adding limited technical detail too (as some of the labels do). Is the vacillation about labelling policy symptomatic of  uncertainty about what the museum is trying to achieve?

Like Jack Simmons, I found very little track, or even much commentary about it. There is a small quantity of track amongst the early railways exhibits, themselves taking up a quite small area that was rather lost amongst the vast modern locomotives and carriages.


This area represents early railways (basically railways before the Liverpool & Manchester line opened in 1830); an early steam loco in included, just out of shot. Apart from the surprising juxtaposition with the locomotive behind, which dominates the view, this display is expected to pass muster as the story of about 150 years of railway development. Actually the display panels are interesting and informative, and seem to represent all the museum wants to say about the pre-history of Britain’s railways. But is this really all the space that is felt necessary to present this early story, and is it really felt adequate? To have any meaning to visitors (even if they can divert their gaze in this direction) it really needs to be presented to them before all the more recent stuff.


This is a closer view of left hand end of early railways area showing some early wooden and iron rails and the stone blocks on which they were carried. The explanation goes some way towards redeeming a display that looks as though it has been dumped there awaiting proper installation, and you cannot see stuff at rear without being tempted to step amongst the rails. This is really not adequate and it isn’t as though the museum lacks old trackwork; there was far more track on display in the old Queens Road museum. And what of modern track? Apart from odd photos elsewhere I cannot say I could see anything from the last 150 years (apart from what vehicles are standing on, about which no explanation is given). This is a railway museum, surely we can do better than this? The other two museums I am reviewing here do no better of course, but they are not claiming to be a national railway museum. The old truck, by the way, dates to 1797 and when the museum opened had its own display area showing it as part of a quarry and on its own plateway. What we have here is not an improvement!


By comparison, this is how the 1797 wagon used to be displayed at York. Other material was also displayed contextually, but isn’t now.

There is an upper floor with more detailed displays explaining some engineering and operating functions but exhibits are sparse by comparison with the number of display boards which tell an interesting enough story but left me wondering where the exhibits were. (I know where they were, they were in the store underneath.)

There are a number of display panels dealing with various aspects of railway operations, of which perhaps clocks (timekeeping) was the most successful set. Even so the complete domination of the museum by the steam locomotive dwarfs all this important stuff.


Here is part of the signalling display comprising (at left) an example of the ubiquitous mechanical signal frame. This is a good exhibit but only when staffed. There is not much by way of explanation when it isn’t. Compare with approach taken by GWR museum at Swindon. Why can’t we have some levers to pull, with something at the end of them? On the right is  much of the rest of the display comprising mainly display panels.

Although the main part of the signalling display explained the basics it did seem a bit mean given the amount of signalling equipment the museum holds and the comparative wealth of effort put into displaying locomotives. ‘Signalling’ is the lazy way of describing the basic safety systems by means of which it is possible for railways to function at all, and are therefore important (as well as being a technology in which the British led much of the world for many years).

In fairness I must compliment the museum for its display of real time operations on the east coast main line, in conjunction with some display panels. This certainly goes some way towards filling in a signalling gap (and the live train movements, also viewable through nearby window, will grab attention, though it is all modern stuff and doesn’t really use the objects from the museum’s formidable collection). Moreover, since the display was installed, we should bear in mind much of the information here can be called up on a fairly average smartphone.


Part of the live trains panel in the ‘East Coast’ display area.

I have hinted at various points that there seems to be no logical order to what is displayed. Whilst this objection is equally true of Glasgow, I should say that it was not always true at York. When the museum opened in 1975 there was not only an entire gallery at first floor level that showed off the relatively small exhibits, but it was called ‘The Story of the Railway’ and did just that. This gave you a feel for what the museum was trying to do and allowed you to work out where the larger exhibits fitted in when you came to them.

Moreover the exhibits were once arranged in a logical order with themed explanatory panels around the walls and (notwithstanding the turntables) the various rolling stock items were cunningly arranged into discrete zones. For example zones 7-9 were devoted to the development of carriages, with (say) zone 7 being all about the evolution of the 4-wheeled carriage, so you knew where stuff was. I find it interesting that that this was possible in a museum then smaller and more congested and do not see that what has been put in place instead has made interpretation of the collection easier. The loss of the ‘Story of The Railway’ gallery altogether seems regrettable and makes the visitor now have to work quite hard to glean a coherent story of the railway from the haphazard arrangement that is now found. Indeed I wonder if a meaningful ‘story’ can actually be determined from the displays provided (I will return in part 6 to what that story might be). I can’t help thinking that the museum might have lost its way.

To one side of the great hall is the museum store which is open to the public and in which many thousands of exhibits lurk on shelves and pallets to surprise and amaze visitors. The exhibits are largely batched together in discrete areas but are generally not labelled or interpreted in any way, which adds to the fun. There were the tied-on object identification labels that could usually be read if you were really interested.


A view of the store from an overhead gallery. This can do no more than give a general feel for the vast quantity of stuff in the museum’s holding and making it available this way seems to me an act of enlightenment to be heartily applauded.

To me the accessible store is by far and away the most interesting part of the museum and would have justified going to York for the day without seeing any of the large exhibits at all! Basically it is where all the stuff is. One can meander about till one’s heart is content amongst the thousands upon thousands of exhibits here and for the first time discover that British railway history is about so much more than the steam engine. Railways were vast businesses, involved in so many things, and frankly this is not obvious to younger people today who see only the very narrow railway businesses we have now and who would hardly guess how vast these concerns had been from the exhibits in the main halls.

One of the things that struck me in the warehouse involved training on a vast scale, and the wonderful signal training school layout is well worth spending time examining. There was then the multitude of ticket issuing equipment, automatic machines and so forth, much of the nature of which is quite unknown to anyone under the age of 30 and little known to those under 50!


This model railway ship, not easy to photograph through perspex, is sublime.

The involvement in hotels is probably little known to many (BR ran the largest hotel business in the world), but there are items here (but only in here) that hint at this substantial business. Shipping is well represented, particularly by some of the largest and best models I have ever seen, perhaps even better than those at Glasgow (see later). I managed to take a photo of one and you would not know it wasn’t a real ship.

All the clutter one sees on stations can be found here aplenty. Every conceivable type of sign can be found, some only by carefully peering through the racks. Signalling equipment is here in quantity, some of which really ought to be on display. Trackforms – it is all here, and it is important (it is after all a railway museum as I have said several times). I can’t begin to tell you how many clocks there were, railway timekeeping was crucial. There was perhaps the largest collection of chairs (of the sit-upon type) outside the V&A museum, and benches and stools, and desks and other railway furniture. Uniforms, badges and buttons so distinctive of the pre-grouping railways. In the main hall, staff are virtually forgotten.


One of the larger items in the warehouse is the model railway and other relics from the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway. In this view you can also see some other material stored and displayed in this small corner.

This could have been overwhelming but as an avid people-watcher I noticed a continuous stream of people trickling through. Most were not rushing, but stopping to inspect things that caught their fancy and I heard more than once ‘here, have a look at this’. OK, the items are not specially laid out for viewing, the lighting was adequate (just) but avoided the harsh contrasts in the main hall and photography was possible. The exhibits were generally not obviously labelled unless they had been on display but if you really wanted to know then the card label attached to it could be handy. Perhaps the place played to my own prejudices but I really felt that this was what a museum should be like. It provoked the imagination.


There are more signs stored here than you can shake a stick at.


And here are some more, with a couple of fine lamp posts.


And one of these. However it survived long enough to be decimalized I cannot imagine

The collections store (till recently called ‘The Warehouse’) is not only a real eye-opener but allows the NRM to fulfil its statutory role of placing its material on display. I think, from visits to other relatively new museums, the opening up of the inevitable museum  store is becoming the fashion and I believe it cannot happen fast enough.

I have already hinted elsewhere, only after I left this area did I begin thinking about why it was that some of this material was actually being stored at all rather than being on display. There seemed to me plenty of room in Station Hall for more of the station material, and enough to have a proper booking office of the kind one could once see in the Science Museum’s land transport gallery. There is also plenty of stuff to populate other small themed area in a number of other underfilled spaces.



One of the Rocket replicas undergoing some fairly comprehensive maintenance in the museum’s fully-equipped workshop. No explanation appeared to be available about this or most of the other items receiving attention, though there was a notice about the Gresley pacific restoration a few yards away.

Finally there is the museum workshop where repairs small and large are carried out. This is viewable from an overhead gallery, though I felt more effort could be given to explaining what was going on by means of some updatable display.  There was a board explaining what was going on with Sir Nigel Gresley but that is all I could see. I would have been interested in knowing more about the capabilities of the workshop and what some of the other visible activity was.

Before moving on I must just say a few words about the rolling stock (or carriages, in the language of railway users).

At first sight there are quite a lot of carriages, but closer scrutiny reveals all is not at it seems. The catalogue throws up a respectable 25 items when plausible search terms for carriage are entered. However five are royal vehicles, two are post office vehicles, four are dining / sleeping / Pullman vehicles, nine are very early or specialist or novel vehicles or replicas or not passenger carrying vehicles whilst only five are bona fide carriages of the kind you or I would actually have travelled in, and, of these, three of them are late Victorian and the remaining two are 1937 and 1971. This hardly seems representative, and the 1971 carriage is confusingly liveried externally in 1959-60 Pullman colours (colours reserved for the Blue Pullmans and never carried by Mk II carriages). This hardly seems a satisfactory way to demonstrate how passengers travelled over the last century or more and is in striking contrast to the number of locomotives.


These are the only two ordinary loco-hauled coaches on display that were built after 1905 and neither is painted as passengers would have seen them when in service. The LMS one on the left never appeared in this premium livery and most of the inside cannot be seen (I believe this particular red livery was never seen in the UK). The one on the right, a 1971 Mk IID coach, is in pre-British Rail Nanking Blue (Blue Pullman) livery which loco-hauled Pullmans never carried and nor did this coach. The inside is a good example of ordinary 1970s travel and visitors have full access to one end, which is useful. It is not helpful that visitors might confuse it with Pullman travel or think these were the usual British Rail colours (Rail Blue was quite different). The coach came from a private charter operator who painted it like this but I could not see this explained anywhere. Hopefully it will be correctly repainted in due course. The LMS coach is right under the central skylight and is very difficult to photograph because of excessive reflections (this also affects other vehicles on sunny days).

Most of the carriages are in the Station Hall which is suited to being able to see into them. The LMS 1937 carriage is in the Grand Hall coupled to the LMS streamlined loco and liveried to suit (although in this period, the go-faster livery was blue and this type of carriage never appeared in these colours). I can well understand the compelling temptation to show Duchess of Hamilton with a liveried carriage, but shunning the platform level that would have been available in Station Hall means you cannot see into much of it (you can, of course, see into the loco footplate). As it is, visitors cannot appreciate the inside of an ordinary carriage between 1905 and 1971. At least, not at York.

Meanwhile, rusting away outside in the yard, is an entirely representative type of suburban carriage of late 1950s origin which the museum is attempting to get rid of.


This poor carriage (awaiting disposal by NRM) is typical of the type of suburban stock used in the London area for 25 years and was in service when the museum opened. There is nothing remotely like it on display inside. I found myself expostulating that this ought to be one of the museum’s more important exhibits (more important than some it is stuck with) but instead it is outside rusting away until it can find a loving home. I find this very odd.

In my comments about York I have sought to confine my remarks to what I have actually seen, and my immediate reaction, in order to keep the narrative broadly comparable to those for the other two museums. I appreciate it is somewhat longer, but that is largely because the NRM on its York site alone is 50 per cent larger than the other two museums put together.

I have not particularly commented on the actual selection of exhibits that are displayed and how (and to what extent) the result fulfils the museum’s aspirations or the public need. I have some observations to make about this, together with some suggestions, but that will have to wait until the final part of this series of essays about the NRM where I try and pull the various strands of this story together and place the conclusions in some kind of national context.

Riverside Museum – Glasgow

The Glasgow Riverside Museum (described as its transport and travel museum) resides in a large and very modern architectural statement about which opinions differ. Irrespective of the architectural merit, one might expect a brand new building to have superb visitor facilities and to show off the exhibits at their best and in a controlled atmosphere of which the conservators will approve. I felt this aspiration was only partly met and that it was almost as though the building and the displays had been worked up by different teams who had met only rarely, or perhaps not at all. Internally the objects were well illuminated (a definite plus) but the building felt a little congested. I am all for museums having objects in them, and despair when faced with serried ranks of object-light but expensive and dubious interpretation panels that is sometimes presented as a museum. Even so, when there is so much stuff that it is hard to appreciate the objects then there might be a problem.


This floorplan leaflet of the Riverside Museum Glasgow is a bit grim and gives neither an impression of its size (it is quite big) or what is actually in the museum. It is curious in other aspects, for example it appears one locomotive exclusively occupies the whole of the west wing, which is certainly not the case. This curious type of map presents some of the same arbitrary features the NRM map does. This really needs another approach.

I had entered the museum at the river end after visiting the very excellent sailing ship in which I was shocked to discover I had been absorbed for nearly two hours. My treck through the museum itself was delayed by trying to work out whether there was a route plan and how best to tackle it; hints were not provided and the vast South African locomotive dominates the entrance and hides what is behind it. One can really only plod round and keep checking one hadn’t missed anything.


This is a view I had not expected in a brand new museum.  In essence these important objects can be viewed only from one side because of the density of display. I thought the objects themselves were superb examples of a city’s transport system and are very happy they are on display at all rather than in store. But what was the brief? Was the building designed in complete isolation to the job it had to do? The building has won awards. For what? The visitor wants to see the objects and this visitor is asking the question whether this could have been done in a more mundane (but slightly bigger) structure.

There is some good stuff in the Riverside Museum and I thought it a very interesting and informative display. The layout, though, I did find problematic in that material of similar type was often spread about and some areas were very congested.


Three transport modes and an ambulance. Great exhibits but an unexpected combination. Interpretation is greatly aided by context and most of the layouts lack this.


Glasgow certainly knows how to pack stuff in. It does make some of the material (and I do mean ‘some’ for many exhibits are superbly presented) rather hard to view though. I must add that the upper loco can be viewed properly from upper gallery, but not so for some of these high level adventures. I wonder if the floor area could have been slightly bigger rather than having to use the building’s perhaps excessive height.

A feature of the Riverside Museum I thought rather well done was the street scene. I like these because (whilst to a degree artificial) the exhibits are shown off in some kind of context, a context that also allows some of the smaller exhibits to be displayed meaningfully, or at all. The street scene purports to cover the historical period 1895-1930 while the area to the west covers 1930-1980.


A street scene at Riverside which I guess is considered its centre-piece. It is possible to go inside the shop creations. Like anything else it is perfectly possible to pick holes in recreations like this but I think if done well it provides an atmosphere within which it is possible more readily to make sense of things. I thought this well worth the effort.

The general arrangements at Glasgow have just been described but I need to say that the exhibits selected for display are intended to reflect Glasgow’s maritime and manufacturing history as well as its transport system. For this reason the museum includes quite a bit of shipping material including a substantial number of large ship models (at least a hundred). This number might be found overwhelming and there are far too many to have the slightest hope of studying in any detail more than a few samples. The number comes about because of Glasgow’s shipbuilding past where every new ship is modelled first; it seems every last one of them has ended up here and must have given the curators having to display them something of a challenge.

The city’s industrial manufacturing capacity also extended to railway locomotives and the five locomotives on display were all Glasgow-built. Four of them are representative of locomotives operating on the various Scottish railways but the fifth is representative of one of many thousands made in Glasgow for export, and this 180 ton beast was in service in South Africa for 43 years. It suffers from the same obvious disadvantage as the Chinese loco at York, except that space is even more confined. Actually it is so big it is quite hard to appreciate because you cannot get far enough away from it to view it properly (this is the loco I referred to by the entrance). The native railway locomotives were gifted by British Rail in 1966 and it is clear they are there to represent local engineering and not main line rail transport around the Glasgow area about which little is said. Moreover I found no carriages or other railway paraphernalia in the museum. This seems a serious omission given the dense railway network in the region and its importance in supporting the wider engineering industry.

Glasgow’s transport system was known for its trams and there are several in the collection, though not all together. I think it would have been more meaningful to have put the stuff together, perhaps with some ancillary equipment, of which I saw none (though there are decaying switch-boxes still to be found in the street which could usefully be recovered). No overhead wire either, which is a shame as it would once have been familiar. I did not notice any summary of the history of the tram system, though I might have missed it.

The other Glasgow transport feature is the subway and it was nice to see a subway station entrance built into the street scene. On entering, one is in a recreated station not long after the subway opened and in which there is a (then) cable-hauled car in appropriate livery and where one can partly board to see inside. There is a description of the Hallidie system by which these cars were drawn. Strange to say that in the post 1930 section of the museum there is another subway station recreated to show a later period with another of the cars, this time arranged for electric operation. Although this split-by-date arrangement might suit some conceptual ideal I am not sure it aids a rapid understanding of the subway and its contribution to transport.


This shows a subway cable-driven car in one of the museum displays, and the interior of an electrically-driven subway car in a different display area. Both areas are intended to be redolent of the tiled stations, and access to each car is possible. Though not mentioned, the resemblance with the City & South London Railway car at Covent Garden is striking.

I can do no more than recommend the Riverside Museum and advise visitors to leave plenty of time. Although many of the displays are a bit crowded I find myself increasingly of the view that it is a primary duty of museums to acquire representative objects and display them to the public. Whether Riverside’s exhibits are representative given my observation about the railway material is a question for another day, but it is patently obvious that within the limitations of the building heroic efforts have been made to show off the objects albeit some of them are not shown off at their best. I think it just about works and on balance is better than just hoarding material out of sight.


Most of my observations I have made on the way through the descriptive part already, but there is an opportunity here to compare and contrast a number of features.

First we have three very different buildings. Glasgow is new and on a relatively unconstrained site. The NRM is part new but heavily constrained by site conditions and a troubled history. Swindon (I struggle with using the museum’s chosen name) is a very old building that has been heavily modified. I think Glasgow and Swindon play to their respective strengths, the former having a large floor area relatively free of columns and the latter providing a great atmosphere for what the museum purports to cover; indeed the building is really a part of the whole experience. The NRM is a mixed bag and I very much suspect that the shortcomings I can identify in the not-very-interesting buildings are but nothing to those who have to run the place. However, Swindon (and lots of other museums) demonstrate that it is perfectly possible to install essential displays in re-purposed buildings and to be very ingenious in how one uses the space.

I think part of the display problem at York is the very large number of full size exhibits that are put on display in an area with a turntable arrangement, variable length stub roads and access at one end. This might not matter much except that for policy reasons the grand hall is used as a kind of engine shed because of the constant changing over and moving round of engines so they can be steamed or exchanged with one of the outposts. This seems to me a huge self-imposed constraint on having any remotely efficient layout or the provision of dedicated display areas as they would get in the way of the access route. It also makes it difficult to show stuff off in context and make better use of all the other railway paraphernalia that the museum owns but keeps in its store.

The quality of display varied to a degree between the three museums. Clearly I was impressed by Swindon and my criticisms are small. At Glasgow I have no particular comments beyond those about some areas being overcrowded. The actual quality of display and labelling seemed satisfactory but I lament there was so little about the railway network.

For now I shall leave it that from my review of three museums my conclusion is that the GWR Museum at Swindon has made by far the most successful attempt to make best use of its limited space and limited number of exhibits, in a very old building, and it works very well.  I will confess that it opened my eyes to what can be done in a confined space and to an extent provides something of a benchmark by which I found myself considering the other two. I must stress that I thoroughly enjoyed my visits to all three museums and am very aware of all the work that has gone into them. The question is, to what extent do they contribute to our understanding of their chosen subject area.

I will seek to answer this question in the final part, and in doing so will be reviewing other channels through which the history of our railways might be learned about. In coming to a conclusion I hope to indicate three things. First, does the NRM meet its own objectives? Secondly, does it meet visitor needs and aspirations and the country’s desire to educate and inform (it presumably has such a desire as it pays for it)? Thirdly, what could be done better? The latter does not presuppose ‘failure’, merely that I have not found anything, anywhere, that cannot in some way be done better. In this I am attempting to carry on where Jack Simmons left off.

About machorne

I have always lived in London and taken a great interest in its history and ongoing development. This extended into the history of its transport services, about which I have written a number of books - I have spent most of my working life working in the industry and observing changes from within, mostly to the good, but not always so. I continue to write, and have a website with half finished stuff in it so that it is at least available, if not complete. Several new books are in hand. I have many 'works in progress' and some of these can be found on my website; the we address is
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1 Response to Britain’s National Railway Museum: Part 5

  1. Robert Butlin says:

    You won’t be the only person to grumble about the excessive number of steam engines and minute number of carriages. I’ll be joining you. To not keep and display an EMU carriage seems criminal when they were what many people travelled on.


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