The recent gifting of a locomotive by the National Railway Museum has prompted much interest in the museum’s disposal policy. Andrew McLean, Head Curator, sets out the wider challenges of managing the National Collection. Anthony Coulls, Senior Curator of Rail Transport and Technology, then runs through the process and takes the opportunity to explain the reasons behind the decision to gift the T3 class No. 563 to the Swanage Railway.
The challenges of managing a world-class collection
It isn’t all about disposals. In fact, the National Railway Museum acquires more items for the collection than it disposes off. By regularly reviewing our collection, we’re not only able to create a better balance but to fill gaps in it too. Currently a key challenge is to adequately capture the present and future railway. The appearance of a Eurostar power car in Great Hall in recent years adds a real modern relevance; the acquisition of the InterCity Express Programme mock-up cab provides a taste of a future that is almost here.
The most significant gap in our collection is a production High Speed Train, more popularly known as the Intercity 125 and arguably the most successful British train ever. It isn’t just a physical example of this train that we would like to acquire, but also the stories, artefacts and records associated with it. We’re working closely with the rail industry, IMechE and the Railway Heritage Designation Advisory Board, and one day an HST power car and Mark III carriage (at the very least) will be on display. The incredible longevity and success of the HST means that we may have a little longer to wait.
We have also been very generous lenders for more than 40 years and continue to actively engage in loans from our Collection. As part of the Science Museum Group we draw on a full Collections Services team, who are tasked with the considerable job of administering all loans and ensuring that safeguards around conservation, security, access and transportation are met.
Loans remain incredibly important as they enable us to showcase our core collection across the UK, whether Swindon-built steam locomotives in Swindon, a Glasgow-built electric in Scotland, or the last surviving Welsh-built standard gauge steam locomotive in Wales. These are items that we would not seek to dispose of because of their national importance and potential use by us in decades to come, but which we may not currently have the space and resources to display and interpret well.
Equally, we are approached for loans for temporary exhibitions in the UK and beyond. In recent years items from the National Collection – from paintings and posters to locomotives and carriages – have been seen across the UK, Europe and beyond. This has been of enormous benefit to both the Museum and borrowers, and helped spread the reach of the world’s most significant railway collection.
Many of our loaned items are operating rail vehicles. We are often asked which vehicles we will put back into operation next, especially since Flying Scotsman’s triumphant return last year. Again, it’s all about balance.
We have a number of operating vehicles across the country, but we also have a primary responsibility to showcase our museum spaces too – people expect to see some of the great locomotives when visiting our museums in York or Shildon. Nevertheless, Flying Scotsman, Oliver Cromwell and our Deltic Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry provide main line capability; a myriad of other steam locomotives and diesels can also be seen in operation on heritage lines. Recently, in a unique agreement with the 125 Group, the sole surviving HSDT power car (the prototype HST), was returned to operation for the first time in 40 years.
Since the National Railway Museum opened in 1975, many of our icons have also been in operation. The Stirling Single, Hardwicke, the Midland Compound, City of Truro, Mallard and many others have all operated in that time, but restoration and operation is expensive and time-consuming. We are also bound by conservation considerations and the need to ensure balanced displays at our museums.
This means we have to be realistic about what is possible. We are often asked about the potential to steam locomotives such as Green Arrow and Duchess of Hamilton once more. We have not ruled these out – although both would face considerable challenges to return to steam – but currently we have no plans to do so. At the moment, our key priority is the development of our Masterplan project, which represents the largest transformation of the Museum site since we first opened over 40 years ago – details of which we look forward to officially announcing next year.
Flying Scotsman’s successful return to steam attracted so much attention it’s worth referencing the recent extensive programme of restoration work with our wider rail vehicle collection. In the past three years, significant sums have been spent, or are about to be spent, on our class 20, 37, 40, 47 and 55 diesels (all of which but the 40 will be operational), three of our iconic electrics, the 2Hap unit and the class 71 and 306 EMU, to be commenced later this year.
Managing a large collection is a very real challenge and we’ll never be able to please all of the people, all of the time, but we do have an expert team with exceptional knowledge of our collection, Britain’s railway history and the impact it has had on the UK and the wider world. It may also surprise people to learn that rail vehicles make up less than 1% of our overall collection. But whatever the object is that we’re managing – a railway company seal or a large locomotive – we follow accepted museum practice and continually strive to do justice to the world’s greatest railway collection.
Andrew McLean, Head Curator, National Railway Museum
The National Railway Museum – A sustainable collection
The National Railway Museum has the world’s largest collection of railway artefacts. As time moves on and history is made, we add hundreds of objects, artefacts and records to our collection each year. Of course, we also need to undertake housekeeping to ensure that the collection remains sustainable, relevant and engaging.
Our activity is carefully governed by a disposal policy that draws on national best practice across the museum sector. We ask whether the public benefit might be better served by transferring objects to ownership by other public or charitable organisations which may be able to apply additional financial resources or provide a new audience for objects.
This policy ensures the long-term sustainability, significance and safety of the National Collection and except for sound curatorial reasons we maintain a strong presumption against the disposal of any item.
However, items that might fit our criteria for disposal are then referred to our internal Board of Survey, where they’re peer reviewed by colleagues from across the Science Museum Group (of which the National Railway Museum is part). Our criteria for consideration are set out in our governing Act of Parliament, the National Heritage Act 1983, which includes the following questions: Is an object in a poor condition, is there duplication, is this unsuitable for the Collection and is this more suitable for another museum? More detail can be found in our Collecting Policy.
The Board of Survey may then recommend disposal or they may decline it. If approved, the case goes to the Science Museum Group Collections & Research Committee for ratification before being taken to the statutory Railway Heritage Designation Advisory Board. This includes a range of external museum and railway experts who may make comments or recommendations. Finally, it goes to Science Museum Group Trustees for their approval and sign off.
If Trustees agree, we can then offer the item to a suitable recipient, who may or may not have already been identified. Items for which there may be more than one suitable recipient are advertised on our website, in Museums Journal and through Heritage Railway Association channels. If no suitable new home is found in this way, we would either approach new potential locations directly or would advertise in agreed specialist media to identify.
In the case of the T3, we had a number of 4-4-0 type locomotives, mostly from the Victorian or Edwardian eras which had resulted in an imbalance of locomotives from this period in the Collection. We concluded that gifting the T3 to a well-respected heritage railway and one with which it has strong historical connection, would better enable it to be enjoyed by the public for future generations
Swanage Railway has an outstanding record for preserving and displaying items and we judged that they would make an excellent home for the locomotive. The gifting of the T3 in this instance as opposed to a long term loan, allows Swanage Railway to make longer term plans and hence greater investment in its future than would have been the case had this locomotive remained in the ownership of the National Railway Museum.
Why gifting over loaning? A question asked of us about the transfer of the T3 is why it has been gifted and not lent. In this instance, gifting over loaning gives Swanage Railway absolute control over investment in the locomotive and its conservation, while the terms of the transfer mean that should Swanage no longer require it, it will be offered back to the National Railway Museum in the first instance. Had we simply entered into a loan agreement, Swanage would be beholden to the museum over the engine for the duration of that loan.
Our advertising of object disposals, including rail vehicles, already meets sector best practice. Given the interest the T3 has aroused, though, we’re committed in future to go above and beyond these requirements and will advertise every rail vehicle disposal.
Everyone at the Museum fully understands that the decision to gift parts of our collection provokes strong feelings, especially if it is a much-loved locomotive. We’d be disappointed if the public did not feel strongly. But we’re confident that the T3 will serve the public better in its new home than in the Museum’s collection.
Over the last few years, we have looked carefully at our rolling stock collections and identified a number of rail vehicles as having a better long-term future outside the National Collection. Some were locomotives, others were carriages and wagons. Each were taken as separate cases to the Board and discussed.
Several items on long-term loan were recommended for transfer to their custodians, such as three wagons at Yeovil Railway Centre and the Great Western Collett restaurant car at the Severn Valley Railway. Others were found new homes where they would achieve greater significance and benefit from enhanced care. These included the GWR 5 plank wagon, now at Welshpool, the North Staffordshire Railway tank locomotive, two tram cars and the T3 LSWR 563 locomotive.
Finally, a number of vehicles were advertised in Museums Journal and found new recipients, such as a Great Northern Railway bolster wagon which went to the East Anglian Railway Museum for restoration.
The movement of these vehicles to other custodians allows greater investment in their futures than perhaps might have been the case had they remained in the ownership of the National Railway Museum.
A successful example of an earlier transfer from the collection in 2009 was the Stockton & Darlington Railway Forcett coach. With our limited financial resources, it was not a priority for conservation or restoration, but within a year of being transferred to Beamish, it was fully restored and on display.
We are currently involved in discussions regarding one possible future disposal, which, with the transfer of the T3 4-4-0 locomotive number 563 to the Swanage Railway, concludes our work with the rolling stock collections as part of the activity we’ve carried out since 2010. Inkeeping with the Museums Association Guidelines and our processes, we hope to make the decision of this public shortly.
Anthony Coulls, Senior Curator of Rail Transport and Technology, National Railway Museum