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 Post subject: Are Railway Museums Successful?
PostPosted: Mon Jun 13, 2016 7:48 am 

Joined: Thu Aug 19, 2010 11:08 am
Posts: 219
Location: Whitefield, ME
Yesterday, I read about the imminent closure of the air museum in Quonset, RI. Today, I spent a bit of time further relating this situation to railway preservation. Over the years various individuals on this forum have lamented the public's lack of understanding and knowledge in relation to railways. Others are disenchanted when people don't understand why we would want to preserve railways or express disappointment at the lack of investment in our U.S. passenger rail infrastructure. This frustration is not misplaced. Rather, I believe it may be indicative of a larger problem facing railway preservation.

100 years ago we know knowledge of railways was widespread because railways employed so many people that nearly every person had a railway employee in their immediate family. Today's railways do not prioritize educating the public regarding railways, not is it their primary mission or responsibility.

So who does the responsibility for educating the public about the past, present, and future of railways now fall to? Today, I believe that it falls to railway museums. I don't think that I am too far off, when the public holds broad misunderstandings about railways and lack of support, to say that we may be failing in this mission which most railways museums share at least in part.

Our collective viability and reputation requires each museum to do an outstanding job in achieving this. It is at the core of our responsibility. How can we, as a community ensure that we are more thorough in addressing important issues and how can we ensure a consistent standard of quality among railway museums? There are other important questions too, I am sure, and I'd appreciate your feedback on what they might be.

I believe it is of equal importance to consider what are we currently doing that is successful, and how we gauge our success as well.

Stephen


Last edited by stephenpiwowarski on Tue Jun 14, 2016 9:27 am, edited 1 time in total.

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 Post subject: Re: Are Railway Museums Successful?
PostPosted: Mon Jun 13, 2016 10:19 am 

Joined: Sun Aug 22, 2004 11:26 am
Posts: 4299
Location: Maine
My initial response is, a museum is more than an attic to preserve anachronisms when:

-It has engaging, hands-on exhibits which invite the visitor to "get involved" with the technology.

-It has a strong primary, middle, and high school outreach program. This means complete lesson plans, developed by teachers and mailed to every school Principal with a cover letter. Lesson plans should be made with support of the state department of education (which might pick up the printing cost and distribution costs, too).

-An interactive website it the trend of the future. Kids are being given laptops and iPads. These are an integral part of involving classroom based learning with strong support activities.

-Family activity days should be held with plenty of advanced publicity. Radio, public service announcements, radio, newspapers. Invite reporters to see what's going on.

Where I think museums fail is where exhibits are inaccessible, rusty, roped off, have no activities, are poorly lit, have "Do not touch" on every item. and do not move. Without motion, kids might as well tour a cemetery.

My two cents.

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 Post subject: Re: Are Railway Museums Successful?
PostPosted: Mon Jun 13, 2016 11:28 am 

Joined: Tue Aug 24, 2004 3:07 pm
Posts: 692
Perhaps a more basic delineator is:

A. Do you just get to look at it, or....

B. Can you get in it and ride.


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 Post subject: Re: Are Railway Museums Successful?
PostPosted: Mon Jun 13, 2016 11:32 am 

Joined: Sat Jul 02, 2005 7:16 am
Posts: 1627
Richard Glueck wrote:
-It has a strong primary, middle, and high school outreach program. This means complete lesson plans, developed by teachers and mailed to every school Principal with a cover letter. Lesson plans should be made with support of the state department of education (which might pick up the printing cost and distribution costs, too).


Here is a tool to help in that department, written by a former EMD Training Center Instructor, one of several childrens books with railroad and marine themes that he has written:

https://www.amazon.com/REAL-LOCOMOTIVE- ... entries*=0

PC

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 Post subject: Re: Are Railway Museums Successful?
PostPosted: Mon Jun 13, 2016 12:04 pm 

Joined: Mon Aug 23, 2004 12:08 pm
Posts: 255
Location: Western Railroad Museum - Rio Vista
A basic problem with too many rail museums is that members do not look at the exhibits in the same way as the public. A member may know, for example, that a certain paint scheme was used in 1939 but does not share with the public why that is significant. Also some people are very poor public speakers but they talk to the public because no one else is available.

With operating museums members frequently are so concerned with the rule book and how to make things run that they don't have time to explain anything to the public. They are not yet proficient enough to operate without having to think about every step in advance.

Every museum has one or two members who present a very bad image to the public for one reason or another. But members don't want to banish "good old Joe" to some obscure corner while the museum is open.

All of the above are reasons some railway museums are not successful.


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 Post subject: Re: Are Railway Museums Successful?
PostPosted: Mon Jun 13, 2016 12:29 pm 

Joined: Tue Aug 24, 2004 2:35 pm
Posts: 363
Location: NJ
What would you consider successful?

1) Breaking even while meeting the mission statement and intended purpose.

2) Consistently turning a profit.

3) A government supported entity (no profit) that meets its intended audience but struggles even with continued, additional, support.

There are many different ways to look at what is successful.

And which current museums would you consider successful?

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 Post subject: Re: Are Railway Museums Successful?
PostPosted: Mon Jun 13, 2016 4:09 pm 

Joined: Thu Sep 29, 2011 10:17 am
Posts: 237
Location: New York
Some very good answers so far, which include:

- are your exhibits interesting and engaging?

- does your stuff sit there, or does it move?

I'll add:

- is your operation well-managed to control expenses and allow for continued maintenance and growth?

I've been writing about some of this in my "Preservation Topics" column in Railfan & Railroad. The running theme has been how we interpret what a railroad museum is today versus thirty or forty years ago. Visitors have different expectations of entertainment and engagement, and if you don't meet some of them, your operation won't be viable in the long term. To answer the original poster's question, yes, railway museums can be "successful."

Not all solutions are appropriate for all museums, though.

- You could be in charge of the caboose on display in the town park. You go in and open it on weekends and answer questions to curious passer-by. Maybe once every five years you put another coat of red paint on it. Otherwise the town comes in to mow the grass.

- You could be in charge of an old depot that has been restored as a museum. Perhaps there's a caboose or a passenger car on display outside. You open on weekends and answer questions to curious passer-by. Regular maintenance and utilities are your major expenses.

- Your organization could be in charge of a collection of equipment without public access. It could be two cars or two dozen, but they are all in storage, all in various states of repair from great to how-did-they-move-this-basket-case-on-its-own-wheels. Your organization has enough funds to pay rent for storage, and not much else. Moving any piece to a new home is prohibitively expensive.

- Your organization could be in charge of a collection of equipment that is open to the public. It could be two cars or two dozen, some are in storage, some are on display, all in various states of repair. You are open on a regular weekend schedule. Your organization must determine how to raise funds to maintain the displays, encourage people to visit, and plan for future restoration and stabilization projects.

- Perhaps you have a couple of miles of railroad to play with. It could be an isolated track, it could be connected to the national network. Either way, you now have a whole host of expenses and personnel issues to consider if you are going to offer train rides as a serious source of revenue. Will you have paid employees or be all volunteer? How many trains will you maintain in operating condition? Oh, and you operate every weekend from May through October, and probably offer Christmas and Easter events, too.

These are just some examples. Let's simplify it more. Either you're a COLLECTION closed to the public, or a STATIC DISPLAY open to the public, or ACTIVE/OPERATING open to the public:

- COLLECTIONS CLOSED TO PUBLIC
a. depot/building
b. railcars
c. historic archive

- STATIC DISPLAY OPEN TO PUBLIC
a. depot/building
b. railcars
c. historic archive

- ACTIVE/OPERATING OPEN TO PUBLIC
a. train ride offered on private track or by agreement with existing railroad
-- steam
-- diesel
-- electric
-- track cars/other
b. lease equipment for operation elsewhere (ex: Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society and NKP 765)
c. some combination of both

The formula for "success" will be different for each.

-otto-

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—Otto M. Vondrak
President, Rochester & Genesee Valley Railroad Museum
Rochester, N.Y.


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 Post subject: Re: Are Railway Museums Successful?
PostPosted: Mon Jun 13, 2016 5:10 pm 

Joined: Sun Aug 22, 2004 7:19 am
Posts: 5945
Location: southeastern USA
Lots of good points made here, but one I want to add is the extent to which you relate and attract people who aren't us. If you are run by railfans, programmed for railfans, advertise to railfans, interpret technical detals that only railfans can understand, choose and prioritize projects and products that only railfans appreciate..... you aren't successful. How do you make a railfan stop viewing his bit of the universe as a railfan? probably a lost cause, so you need to bring in people who don't care about trains and have them tell you what they want to come to experience instead of what you do since you want to experience it. Then instead of arguing with them, do what they say.......

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Santayana: "He who does not remember the past is condemned to repeat it."
Corollary: "He who does is doomed to watch those who don't repeat it anyway."


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 Post subject: Re: Are Railway Museums Successful?
PostPosted: Mon Jun 13, 2016 6:58 pm 

Joined: Sun Aug 22, 2004 1:51 pm
Posts: 9906
Location: Somewhere east of Prescott, AZ along the old Santa Fe "Prescott & Eastern"
The critical objective of any museum is not simply to preserve the artifacts and history within, but also to make the rest of the public care enough about said artifacts/history and the related mission to support the museum and its mission, and to perpetuate said support for the long-term future.

Any museum that fails at either or both of those missions is soon a dead museum, or being taken over, liquidated, etc.

This applies whether it's art, dinosaur bones, old cars, the one-room schoolhouse, the "nation's attic," sex, the old copper mining village, pinball machines, instruments of torture, beer bottles, or trains and planes.

The problem with railroad museums is that they're struggling to remain relevant in an era when nobody's been able to say "trains are an important part of American life" for two generations. The former overt or covert assistance of the railroad industry has withered away as the industry has shrunk to serving fewer, more massive customers at the expense of public relationships. Other, larger social changes are also at play, and have been reiterated in this forum often--shortened attention spans, lower disposable income in the working class, expansion of leisure activities to fill every waking moment, etc.

We're hardly the only ones with problems. But as an industry, rail preservation is failing the PR mission, as a general rule.


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 Post subject: Re: Are Railway Museums Successful?
PostPosted: Mon Jun 13, 2016 7:32 pm 

Joined: Fri Mar 26, 2010 11:43 am
Posts: 640
cjvrr wrote:
What would you consider successful?
1) Breaking even while meeting the mission statement and intended purpose.
2) Consistently turning a profit.
3) A government supported entity (no profit) that meets its intended audience but struggles even with continued, additional, support.
There are many different ways to look at what is successful.
And which current museums would you consider successful?


At the most basic level, your books must more or less be consistently in the black. But we need to look at our wealth like Warren Buffet or Donald Trump, our net worth is our books AND our artifacts AND our facilities. If you keep your books 'in the black' while letting your collection and building fall apart, you are actually deep in the red.
In other words, you must stay financially solvent, or you will vanish. You can survive on a talented grant writer and no visitors a LOT longer then you can survive on lots of visitors but no income.

To be successful you must survive AND add something to your community. Your visitors must leave happy, smarter, and recommending it to others. Local politicians need to be visiting on a regular basis. When you ask locals how to find the place, they know where it is. People who have no primary interest in your subject matter (the stereotypical 'wife that got dragged along') even think your place is awesome and give positive reviews. When troubles come your way, the community is behind your side.


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 Post subject: Re: Are Railway Museums Successful?
PostPosted: Mon Jun 13, 2016 11:04 pm 

Joined: Tue Jun 02, 2015 10:57 pm
Posts: 22
I don't think it is too surprising that a lot of RR museums are unsuccessful in attracting young to middle aged people. If we are trying to portray 1940's railroading, for instance, that period to people today might as well be the ice age. And then we take a small part of people's lives in that period, rail transportation, and present it with little or no context. It is no wonder that people can't relate to it.

Maybe we should set up a "gate of time" that people walk through. Once through it, everything is back in the 1940's. The roads and streets are dirt or gravel, with only the main street paved (a lot of people don't know that train travel was so important because there weren't any good roads - they need to experience this). The cars are from the 1940's. The station is from the 1940's or earlier. The telegraph is going. An appropriately dressed agent asks people where they want to go and "sells" them the correct ticket. Then the train pulls in. There is a baggage car or combine. Mail, express and parcel post is loaded and unloaded. This includes, for example, a box of "live chicks" with holes in it for the local farmer. Mail, etc. is loaded. (People don't know everything arrived and left town by train). At one end of the station there is a crossing with a gatehouse with a wood stove in it, and a manual gate which is raised and lowered by a gate person.

Nearby is the stationmaster's house, which people can tour. Everything in the house is from the 1940's: furniture, appliances, wringer washer, radio, wind up phonograph which works, an old card game or board game set up, etc. (this is what will be remembered by the people who are dragged to the museum by the train lovers). Maybe there are other 1940's buildings like stores and houses, as well. A favorite store is a drug store with old brands of candy which can actually be purchased, and a soda fountain (it is a good money maker too).

Everyone is appropriately dressed. The diesel engine crew have shirts and ties with their overalls. The steam engine crew have bandanas and cuff bands, and their shirts are closed up against cinders. They all have pocket watches. The stationmaster's wife in her house has a 1940's dress on, and is well versed about everything in the house..

Interlaced with this would be interactive things which people could do to place themselves in the scene. Perhaps they could help load and unload mail and express, or try raising and lowering the crossing gate, or giving the highball to the engineman, or trying the telegraph, or doing some everyday tasks in the stationmaster's house (how many people have even seen a wringer washer wring clothes, or hung clothes on a clothesline?

It will be like another world to the young people, and it WAS another world.

I volunteer at an old historic village in Ontario Canada which has some RR static displays among a lot of other things, and it is amazing how young people can become interested by interactive displays.


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 Post subject: Re: Are Railway Museums Successful?
PostPosted: Mon Jun 13, 2016 11:27 pm 

Joined: Fri Mar 26, 2010 11:43 am
Posts: 640
I think Greenfield Village is a lot like that.

Washington State Park in Arkansas is another (tho more early 1800's I think)


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 Post subject: Re: Are Railway Museums Successful?
PostPosted: Mon Jun 13, 2016 11:38 pm 

Joined: Sat Aug 28, 2004 5:52 pm
Posts: 542
Location: Apple Valley, Minnesota
This is, of course, a rhetorical question. It has garnered a lot of interesting and some very good answers.

My take on the question is this: before you can judge whether a museum (or anything for that matter) is successful or not, you first have to determine what success is, what it looks like. This is a mental (and physical) exercise that can't be stated in a "one size fits all" answer.

For the larger museums their goals and objectives process, and executing the plan to move them forward, must be comprehensive and fairly detailed, with performance standards and indicators/measures of success. For the smaller depot museums their measures of success won't look anything like the large museum's, but if they set goals and objective and meet them, then the small museum is successful. This is work for the museum's Board or leaders. These people have to sit down, determine the individual factors or indicators that indicate success. From those factors the Board/leaders can then develop a plan (goals & objectives) to do those things that will move the museum towards success.

Short answer: most (but certainly not all) museums large or small are successful mainly because they preserve our transportation heritage. Some museums do it better than others, but in a basic sense all rail museums are successful if they meet the basic requirement, at least to this museum guy, of preserving railroad and trolley history.

Simple, eh?

Thanks!

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Jim Vaitkunas
Minnesota Streetcar Museum
www.trolleyride.org


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 Post subject: Re: Are Railway Museums Successful?
PostPosted: Tue Jun 14, 2016 10:45 am 

Joined: Thu Aug 19, 2010 11:08 am
Posts: 219
Location: Whitefield, ME
Wow, thanks to all of you who have participated for the great feedback! Keep the responses coming. I will summarize a bit while interjecting some additional thoughts and questions.

Dick Glueck got the ball rolling by identifying what success could look like in terms of programs, exhibits, and outreach. In addition he identifies what a failing museum might look like. Similar statements were later echoed by ADMIV. In an attempt to simplify Dick's statement, I believe David aligned the difference between success and failure as static versus operational. I tend to agree with a great deal of what Dick has said, however I feel as though he has identified some of what I'll call the 'products of success'. In other words, museums need programming, exhibits, and outreach. They can take on many forms, but if any one of those elements is missing, a museum is in danger of failing. How they address those elements would be largely governed by their mission and values. David makes an excellent point about static versus operational museums, but I don't think it is quite that simple. Plenty of operations fail, due to a variety of factors, but then again so do plenty of static museums. Both static and operational museums can be successful as well. I do believe, however, that a well run operational element will almost always enhance an museum.

Both fkrock and Dave focus on how we relate to our visitors. Dave focuses on how important it is to consider the visitors point of view when designing exhibits and experiences while fjrock focuses on the disparity between the interpretation of visitors versus that of volunteers. A couple of things that I believe are worth considering here are effective differentiated learning and what effective interpretation looks like. Differentiated learning says that to truly captivate an audience, we have to engage people at their level of understanding. Experiences must be designed to engage people at their level of understanding. With regard to interpretation, we must remember that our visitors also have a great deal of information to offer and that the museum can, at times, learn as much from them as they learn from us.

Financial success was alluded to by several more posters. Good finances are as much an indicator of success as strong attendance, and they are both important. Healthy finances are a symptom of good leadership much in the same way that good attendance is tied to programs, exhibits, and outreach. Furthermore, I believe all of these (good management, programming, exhibits, and outreach) work together in symbiosis to produce the resulting symptom we call success. This success takes many forms including finance, attendance, and diffusion of knowledge. All work should lead towards the long-term sustainability of an operation. This is because long-term sustainability is the best chance we have for the preservation of artifacts and collective knowledge beyond the length of our own finite lives.

Thanks are also due to geoff1944 for his vision of what success could look like. Your vision certainly ties in some elements from our discussion.

Lastly, Jim Vaitkunas stated that museums need to determine what success looks like. I hope our comments above, and this commentary help to provide a good framework for what that might be. While I agree that success might not look alike in every situation, it should probably produce the same symptoms: good finances, good attendance (relative to location), and the active increase and diffusion of knowledge (borrowed from the Smithsonian). All of these support the continuation of our institutions into perpetuity, meaning they will still be around to share knowledge and artifacts many years from now. So when Jim says "most museums large or small are successful mainly because they preserve our transportation heritage." we have to be very careful about what that preservation actually looks like to determine whether it is ultimately successful or not.

I am left thinking about whether or not it would be meaningful to form and adopt a unified, overarching mission statement for railway museums. Do you feel this would help us better align our, work, exhibits and resources? Would it help us advocate for one another better? Could it have other positive impacts? I am not suggesting that this mission would supersede any existing museum mission statements. Rather it would be an overarching mission statement which very broadly identifies what the role of railway museums in general should be. Should such a mission be tied to an existing organization (like ATRRM)? Would we have to accredit those who accept the mission?

While pondering that question, I am posting the following question as another topic on the forum, and would appreciate your feedback: What does a successful railway museum look like?

Thanks for all of your hard work in support of railway preservation,
Stephen


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 Post subject: Re: Are Railway Museums Successful?
PostPosted: Tue Jun 14, 2016 11:15 am 

Joined: Sun Aug 22, 2004 7:19 am
Posts: 5945
Location: southeastern USA
A couple other points: if you located yourself well based on where your market can find you and provide a good product, you won't have to worry about financial success unless you have terrible management. Treat your customers well by giving them experience that affect them positively, and be where they can find you and easily get to you, and you will prosper. Whether you use that prosperity well is another issue.......

Remember, our collections are not just assets since they cost us money to house, protect, maintain, etc. Only collect what you need for your programming and dispose of everything else.

No, I don't think that one common mission statement can cover the variety of specialized areas of interest in our field. ATRRM has provided a very good set of recommended practices which can be tailored to suit any form of railway museum. I do think that we need to carefully define what our scope of interpretation is so we don't all do a terrible job of interpreting everything from everywhere instead of a great job of interpreting a narrower scope of history more meaningfully and deeply.

The post about context is vital - people don;t need to know what living today is like, but have a lot of interest in how living in previous days was like. The more we can share those realities and become a time machine, the better.

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Santayana: "He who does not remember the past is condemned to repeat it."
Corollary: "He who does is doomed to watch those who don't repeat it anyway."


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