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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

National Collections Mean What they say on the Label

A visit to the National Railway Museum this week whilst pleasant enough reminding myself of what real trains looked like in this country - was far from the level of display one would expect from the country which inaugurated steam locomotives. Up to twenty eight or so engines were displayed in the main hall - with two being foreign (Japan and a UK built locomotive for China).

In the small objects annex all manner of railway artifacts from ceramic toilet bowls to railway station signage, furniture, models and much more were stored in vertical confined space allowing no possibility of closer viewing, let alone inspection. By contrast the sales area and refreshment venues were generously laid out to grab as much revenue as possible. This can be forgiven as NRM entry is free with recommended donation (which I made) on arrival. Below : A marvellous ceramic with images of a Fleetwood storage elevator and Wyre Estuary lighthouse (plus locomotive and vessel) found in the NRM small artifacts stores.

The much publicised exhibition on station architecture was limited to a gallery affording a token number of architectural drawings, visionary designs and obligatory photos of Euston Arch. Far from being inspirational and comprehensive it could have been produced (better) by a local railway society.

Admittedly the NRM at York has a more spacious display at Shildon (which I

visited a few years ago) where a larger number and variety of rolling stock are

well laid out. But given the proliferation of steam locomotives still extant and their diversity in designs, liveries and geographic reach - not to mention age, York's national railway venue leaves a great deal to be desired.

No mention of course of mainline railway companies operating electric trams.

All this points to the problems involving major collections purporting to be 'national' attracting donations from all over and with limited resources to put them on display. Hence we come to the Clay Cross's of this world where trams and artifacts are locked away for decades - inaccessible to even Members or researchers. One might consider the London Transport Museum at Covent Garden to be wholly inadequate in depicting a credible story of the capital's transport covering trains, underground, buses, trolleybuses and of course trams. Yet for the average visitor and importantly school groups the few vehicles on display seemingly tell the whole story in a 'canned' and dumbed down venue.

Lessons should be learned when it comes to planning Blackpool's transport heritage attraction - as surely this objective will come to pass. Whilst it comes to trams there are of course many eminent examples already in hand - with others still to make their return to the Fylde coast. Buses and coaches are equally well represented, except ironically those of Blackpool's municipal system.

A Blackpool heritage transport display would have the advantage of depicting not only the Corporation Tramways - but also representatives from the originating Fleetwood company operation; as well as the Lytham St Annes Corporation line. Ironically Lytham St Annes municipal buses are marvellously represented with examples from the 1930s to the subsequent Fylde system. Its just a question of space and of course funding. With major private donations in bequests and grants running into the six figure amounts - there is certainly a groundswell of interest in ensuring this specialist heritage subject is kept very much alive for future generations.

A visit to the NRM is certainly recommended - but on balance Glasgow's Riverside Museum and its eclectic collection and striking displays are the model to aim for.

One day the efforts of Bryan Lindop and his team, plus modest input from our own Trust, will deservedly gain a showcase that does more than simply have rows of nicely painted pristine trams. It took engineers, bodywork crafts, electricians and painters - plus other supportive staff to both design, build, rebuild and keep vehicles on the road (tracks). And then there are the crews themselves who present the best face of the operator to the public. Their stories deserve to be told - for the record.

The profile of a British built loco for China's railways in the postwar era.

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