Transport Museums: Another Kind of Historiography

Article excerpt

Some transport historians have long thought of museums as a suitable place in which to ply their craft. The late Jack Simmons, founding co-editor of this journal, was a passionate advocate of the educational benefits of transport museums and in 1970 published what for many years was the only book in English on the subject.1 In the 1960s he was largely responsible for the journal's ventures into museum reviewing, a practice recently revived after a lengthy period in abeyance. At least one other leading history journal, Technology and Culture, regularly reviews exhibitions of transport, travel and mobility. Nor is this all; at least one article critically analysing the representation of the past on heritage railways has been published in this journal in the last few years.2 These are all very positive developments, not least because museums - like other mass media such as television - have the potential to reach audiences far in excess of the readership of the usual academic article or monograph; and most transport museums would certainly benefit from the help of historians.

Nevertheless I feel that few transport historians have got to grips with the peculiarities of museums and the ways they communicate with the public. Perhaps too there are still some scholars who are uneasy with any popularisation of their subject, regarding it as, at best, a second-string and, at worst, a second-rate activity offering a simplified and probably simplistic account of the past. There is something in this last point: no exhibition can deliver the kind of sophisticated and detailed arguments found in academic monographs or articles. But to expect this from a museum is to misunderstand its purpose. Gaining a sense of what, in educational terms, a museum is and, perhaps even more important, what it might become, is an essential step in recognising that there is nothing second-rate about the contribution that historians make to this kind of transport historiography. Helping the public to understand the past - public history, in one sense of an increasingly popular term - differs from academic history, narrowly defined, in its purpose and hence in some of its methods and techniques: but it need not be any the less scholarly, rigorous or challenging, whether the medium is a museum or some other kind of display, such as the re-enactment (living history) of a heritage transport operation (perhaps a steam railway or historic airfield).3

The academic training usually received by the transport historian and the methods of researching, writing and teaching conventional transport history provide useful knowledge and skills, but the public historian needs more. An exhibition is not a book, for all that it is sometimes useful to think of it as something that is 'written' by its creators and then 'read' by visitors. Communication is not only, or even primarily, through the written word; the ability to think spatially and to conceive of objects both as evidence and as a medium of communication is invaluable. True, historians who become involved with transport museums are likely to be part of a team and so will not need all the skills needed to produce an exhibition. But they will have much more to offer if they have a grasp of the peculiarities of exhibitions as a mass medium. They might even find that working in and with the museum sector encourages them to think about new lines of research. I have in mind both the kinds of subjects and theoretical perspectives scholars adopt in their academic historiography, and the intellectual challenges posed by the need to understand the museum as a medium of communication about the past.

Museums, visitors and 'the past'

All museums need to be clear about their audience, for otherwise they run the risk of telling stories that no one will hear. The principal audience is not always the member of the public who takes the time to walk round an exhibition; it might be a corporate client, for example. …