Friday, March 30, 2007

VMT's special guests

Today, your Virginia Museum of Transportation received two special guests.

The first is Mr. Karl E. "Redbird Express" Teller, the National Hobo King. "Redbird" was elected (by applause) King at the 2002 National Hobo Convention at the Hobo Museum in Britt, Iowa.

King Teller said, "I've been trying to get down here to this museum for a long time, and it was worth the wait."

"Redbird Express" continues to serve as Hobo Ambassador-at-Large, and serves as a Special Ambassador to the Casey Jones Railroad Museum in Water Valley, Mississippi.

The National Hobo Convention meets annually during the second weekend in August (he provided us with a brochure for the event). During the weekend, they host such attractions as:
  • A "Hobo Jungle" (Who knows what this could be?!)
  • Carnival
  • Parade (It must be a stirring sight to see these shoe-less vagabonds with all their possessions in a bag, walking along not completely sure of where they are.)
  • 5K and 10K Walk/Run (Hobo traditions when other forms of transportation are not available.)
  • Classic Car Show (How would Hobos get cars?)
  • Hobo Auction (Whether Hobos' belongings or Hobos themselves are being auctioned is not clear.)
  • The Coronation of the Hobo King and Queen (These elections are determined by applause as decided by a panel of Hobo Judges.)
  • Mulligan Stew (This is interesting; the city of Britt, Iowa cooks up 550 gallons of Mulligan Stew and allows all comers to fill their own containers. Some fill thermoses, others have been known to bring large ice chests to fill.)
Britt, Iowa is roughly 130 miles from anything. 120 miles to the south is Des Moines, and Minneapolis is situated 140 miles northward. The Hobo Museum is located on Britt's Main Street in an old movie theater. "Redbird" told us that they were attempting to have a new facility built, but even the lowest bidder was talking about more than $100,000 for a new building and "that's not Hobo money."*

As for our other special guest, the Virginia Museum of Transportation was pleased to welcome David Goode, retired Chief of Norfolk Southern. David and his wife Susan were in Roanoke today for the dedication of the David and Susan Goode Railwalk, commemorating and chronicling Roanoke's rail heritage via a walking trail from VMT to Market Street downtown. After touring the Railwalk, David and his wife returned to VMT for a tour of the building, led by Executive Director Bev Fitzpatrick and President Tom Cox.

The amount of internet real estate in this post devoted to our two guests may be inversely proportional to their relative importance to this museum's well-being. Nonetheless, VMT was glad to welcome both of our special guests, and we invite them to come back any time.

*Blogger's note: I don't know what that means.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Show me the... wait, where'd it go?

Museum life has its ups and downs. Saying something that trite is not only painful, but also painfully true.

An article in last week's Roanoke Times reports that the City of Roanoke has promised up to $500,000 in matching funds to the Mill Mountain Zoo for capital improvements. That is great news. We have some good friends at the zoo, and those facilities have been in need of repair and upgrading for some time. This was a long time coming for them, and hopefully worth the wait.

Meanwhile, the new Art Museum of Western Virginia is churning along, unfurling like a cross between the Flying Nun's habit and a vague monument to bourgeois taste (that's alright, because it fits in so seamlessly with Roanoke's general architectural scheme). All of this at $66 million. All kidding aside, we have some good friends at the art museum and we're happy they're receiving a new facility.

Naturally, one might think that with the city being so generous to the Mill Mountain Zoo and the Art Museum of Western Virginia, your Virginia Museum of Transportation might be on the eve of a great windfall, a financial bonanza that would be a new sunrise for the museum.

Not only was our grant proposal answered with a mere $24,900, but the latest kick in the teeth came when the city began soliciting bids for a strategic plan for the museum, funded by the Norfolk Southern Corporation. Let us be more clear. We're happy to receive a strategic plan, but the city has so far kept us out of the loop on the bidding process. We're sorry, City of Roanoke, but the last time we checked, we were still a private organization. Unless you're creating a strategic plan for the locomotives themselves, we think we've got a more than legitimate right to input on any and all decisions relating to this museum.

The City of Roanoke owns about 45% of our collection, including the only surviving Norfolk & Western Class J and Class A locomotives, and the largest collection of diesel locomotives in the south. The City of Roanoke, which cut our funding from $60,000* two years ago to $52,000 last year, already has a sizable investment in our museum. In many ways, our museum better than any other, tells the story of Roanoke. Further, admissions figures show that nearly 80% of our patrons come from out of town. How many other museums in Roanoke can boast that?

The building that houses that collection, tells that story, and draws those tourists was built in 1918. Some of the electrical wiring inside is original. More than 75% of the roll-down doors that line the front and rear of the building are in horrible states of repair, and their improper seals make for extremely inefficient heating and cooling. Moreover, damage from the storm last summer that ripped off about 10,000 square feet of our roof left two offices, a conference room, and a bathroom condemned due to water damage in the electrical system. Further, it forced the complete replacement of two HVAC units to heat and cool the building, not to mention a new roof which still hasn't been installed (it took nearly six months to receive the first check from the insurance company after lengthy negotiations and adjustments). If you came by the museum this winter, you discovered what those of us working here encountered daily -- no heat. That same storm tore the main gas line off the building like an old band-aid and permanently damaged the heaters up there.

Census data tells us that the Roanoke metropolitan area is home to roughly 200,000 people. If it costs 66 million dollars to build a new art museum, half a million dollars to restore the zoo to a high level of quality, and if there are more than 35 non-profit organizations in that same metropolitan area, the question is this:

Just how much money will be left for anybody?

We don't think we're more deserving than any other institution in town. Except, maybe we are. Roanoke's investment here has already been illustrated. So maybe we should ask, how much is it worth to protect and develop that investment? It's becoming increasingly clear what the city thinks.

* To put this figure in perspective, $60,000 covers slightly less than two months of our operating expenses.

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Monday, March 26, 2007


The last time our Norfolk & Western J Class #611 ran under its own power was in 1994. When it finally came back to us, the crowds along the tracks were several people deep on both sides.

Currently, #611 is the closest thing we have to an operational locomotive. The current estimate to restore it to running condition is less than $250,000 -- a drop in the bucket for anybody willing to shell out the kind of money it would take to run #611 in excursion service. This is sort of like the people who buy expensive sports cars; if they can afford the car, they can probably afford the gas and taxes.

Like #1218 and #763, we don't own #611; it belongs to the City of Roanoke, and we lease it from them for $1.00 per year. As part of our agreement with the city, and the city's agreement with Norfolk Southern, we are required to move #611 about once a year to keep its wheels and bearings from flattening under the weight of the engine. The last time we moved it was more than a year ago.

Our Executive Director had a fantastic idea to accomplish this task this year -- a large-scale tug-of-war tournament. #611 is registered as a national engineering landmark, in part because it is very well-balanced, so much so that a small group of people (perhaps as few as two or three) can pull it with a rope over level track.

The idea would be to clear the track in front of and behind #611, and have competing teams pulling in opposite directions. The first team to pull the engine beyond a certain point would win that round and it would proceed in a tournament style.

We'd solicit prizes from local businesses, get some live music, throw some burgers and dogs on the grill and charge a nominal admission fee, also collecting group entry fees from the teams. The turn-out could be tremendous, and it could easily become an annual fund raiser. There are a lot of people locally and abroad that would pay just about anything to see this engine move.

If nothing else, we'd get somebody to move the engine without Norfolk Southern having to come in with a switcher just to move the thing a few feet in either direction.

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Thursday, March 15, 2007


There was a good deal of discussion when it was announced that we were going to sell the Nickel Plate locomotive, No. 763 to the Ohio Central Railroad Historical Society (no direct link available). We received positive and negative feedback, but the reasoning behind the decision seems to have been lost amid nostalgia and passion. We'd like to explain why we chose to sell this piece of the collection, and how it will benefit you, our patrons.

To start, we need to clear up that we, the museum, cannot actually sell this particular locomotive. It doesn't belong to us. Rather, it belongs to the City of Roanoke, having been gifted to the city by Norfolk & Western in the 1960s when this museum was the Roanoke Transportation Museum. At no point has the Virginia Museum of Transportation ever owned this locomotive, and as such, its sale must ultimately be made by the city, not us.

On down the rabbit hole, this locomotive in no way furthers the mission of VMT. What is our mission, you ask? It is:
To preserve and interpret the transportation heritage of the Commonwealth by collecting, restoring and exhibiting significant artifacts in order to serve and educate the citizens of Virginia.
That's it. So why doesn't #763 add to this? #763 never ran one foot within the borders of the Commonwealth of Virginia. It came here purely by chance when Norfolk & Western acquired the Nickel Plate line. As diesels were replacing steam engines, there was no need for this piece, but it would be bad politics to simply scrap it. So, it went to the City of Roanoke, home of Norfolk & Western's headquarters at the time. The city stuck it in our back yard, where it's been quite literally through hell and high water.

Ok, now for the ugly part -- money. The American Association of Museums (AAM) contends that it is in bad form to sell any piece of a museum's collection unless the money from the sale directly benefits the collection through restoration or the purchase of another piece. Well, we can't really argue that fact. As mentioned above, the City of Roanoke would receive the money, and it would be at their discretion to allocate it to VMT or not. Assuming they would, the money would at least partially go toward the collection. There's more to it, though.

It has not been made clear quite how dire things have been for VMT financially. In a year that saw the roof torn off the building like wrapping paper on Christmas morning, the state cut our funding by nearly 60%, and the City of Roanoke which owns more than 40% of our collection, gave us a mere $52,000 (representing about a 5% cut from the previous year). The sale of #763 for $125,000, to be blunt, keeps our doors open.

If we want to adhere strictly to the AAM's guideline about the application of money from the sale, then no, it isn't all going where it should. To that, we can only say this:

If we are closed, the pieces in our collection will deteriorate more than they would when we are open.

Period. Do we have a full-time restoration team? No. Could we afford one if we did? Probably not. Would the sale of #763 allow for that? You better believe it would. It would also pay for us to offer educational programs to schools and community organizations, it would go toward restoring and preserving the pieces of our collection, and it would enable us to exhibit better the artifacts we already have. All of these things are 100% in line with our mission statement.

It is undeniable that #763 has a special place in the heart for a lot of Roanokers and Virginia rail fans alike. The decision to sell the locomotive is not meant in any way to belittle or demean this sentiment. Rather, the opposite is true. The Ohio Central Railroad Historical Society has both the money and the ability to restore #763 to operating condition. Upon doing so, it will run excursions in Ohio, providing an unforgettable and meaningful experience to the citizens of Ohio, the engine's true home.

We hope that you'll come to see #763 one last time before it leaves Roanoke. It had a long history here, and will leave amid tears and celebration. But its sale helps us do our jobs, and our jobs make your experiences here better.

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"Starlight" Moving On

This month will be your last chance to catch our temporary exhibit, "Starlight on the Rails," currently on loan from the Robert Mann Gallery in New York. The exhibit showcases nighttime railroad photography NOT done by O. Winston Link (though it certainly must have been inspired by his work).

This exhibit will be leaving in mid-April, to be replaced by two exhibits -- one on buses, the other on the Virginian Railway. Look for more info about those soon.

If you've been by the museum, you've probably seen a banner out front advertising the "Starlight" exhibit. If you were of an especially keen eye, you probably saw that this exhibit was supposed to have left us last year, but has been held over. However popular the exhibit has been (and people have seemed to enjoy it), we didn't keep it this long because of the mass appeal of nighttime railroad photography -- Roanoke already has a museum for that.

We kept it, to be blunt, because there were a hundred other things we had to do, and only six paid employees working in the building, two on a part-time basis. You'll probably hear some spin about how popular it is, but the reality is that when your roof comes off in a storm and your former Executive Director resigns, priorities shift dramatically, and taking pictures off a wall that HASN'T suffered water damage isn't that high on the list. Anyway, our thanks go to the Robert Mann Gallery for being so understanding. They've extended the loan of this exhibit well beyond our contract, and haven't once pushed us to get it back before we were able.

So, only about six or eight months late, "Starlight on the Rails" is leaving us to go back home to New York. Come on down and see it while it lasts. Sunday, April 8th will be the last day the Lawrence Gallery (where "Starlight" currently resides) is open before it changes over.

Come. See. Gawk.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Vince and Larry 2

As promised, here are some photos of Vince and Larry's first day on the job at VMT.

This is Larry. Larry was ready to go, pretty early on today.

This, on the other hand, is Vince. Vince was in bad shape when we rescued him from the attic. But, with a little work, he turned out alright.

Now, we'd hoped that Vince could drive one of our cars for us, but the problem is that Vince is pretty tall as far as crash test dummies go. First, we tried the Impala.

Then the DeSoto...

Then the Studebaker...

And finally the Packard with Jerry. Vince's head is actually touching the top of the passenger compartment, but he fit!

Meanwhile, Larry had been committing unspeakable acts, and trying to hide the evidence in an old refrigerator.

When Vince discovered this, we had to try to hold Larry back from doing the same to Vince.

We were unsuccessful. Note Larry's glee with his act of violence, and Vince clutching his severed leg in shock.

But Vince would be ok again, and the boys had a good first day at work. And they look darned good in the Packard.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Vince and Larry

Aside from being an under-appreciated band from the 1990s, the Crash Test Dummies are Vince and Larry.

We're happy to welcome Vince and Larry to VMT to take part in our auto gallery. Look for pictures later today.

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Friday, March 2, 2007

Inaugural post!

Welcome to VMT Musings, the official blog of the Virginia Museum of Transportation. I'll be your conductor, cruise director, and flight attendant as VMT sets out to document its work and progress in the digital realm and beyond. Ok, enough fluff. Here's what's happening at the museum.

Currently, the museum is transforming itself, getting ready to open a new gallery which will increase the size of the museum by 33%. This new gallery will be our auto gallery (check back for posts with updates on and photos from the gallery), housing first an exhibit from the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) called, "From Mud to Mobility." This exhibit will chronicle the history of VDOT's work in Virginia, from the first paved roads to the creation of the Smart Road. We're hoping to have a soft opening for this exhibit by the end of March, so check back in for more information.

Also on VMT's to-do list is an upcoming bus exhibit. The Executive Director of the museum loves buses (and we all think he seems happiest behind the wheel of a bus), so this exhibit has a special place for him. It showcases a collection of model buses, photographs, bus maps, and other items.

Soon, the museum hopes to re-vamp its Virginian Railway exhibit. Currently, this exhibit is little more than a hodge-podge of boarding passes, time tables, and photographs -- this is hardly a fitting exhibit for one of the leading railroads of its era, and Roanoke's "other" railroad, beside the Norfolk & Western. Look for that exhibit later this year.

Last, but certainly not least, are our on-going restoration projects. The first priority goes to the car we call "President One." This car was used by the president of the Illinois Terminal, and offers quite a few amenities including a kitchen, dining room, state room, and bathrooms. The car still needs a lot of work. Look for photos soon!

So, you're asking yourself, "Self, what can I learn from reading VMT's blog that I can't learn from press releases or advertising?"

What we'll offer you here is the stuff that doesn't go in press releases. You'll be able to follow our restoration efforts on an almost daily basis as new work is done. We'll provide photo essays on what it takes to keep this place running. You'll be able to see the real damage done by the storm last summer that tore off our roof and still has most of the building without heat. This is the acoustic set -- the good, the bad, and the really quite ugly. Stay tuned.

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