Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The sound of rain

I hope you'll forgive this blogger if he waxes poetic today.

It's raining right now. Twenty-five feet above my head is a roof, and directly above that there's rain. Ten months ago, that roof got thrown onto Norfolk Avenue like a comforter kicked off the bed in the middle of the night. The rain came in. It soaked the small collections room, it condemned two offices, a conference room, and a bathroom, and it cost $156,000.

It's hard not to think about that when the rain comes down. We all sneak our eyes upward to the ceiling to look for leaks, drips, seepage, or damp spots. Our new roof is nearly finished -- they're hoping to finish it this week. After that, there should be no reason to look up. In fact, in this part of the building, the roof was largely undamaged, so there has been no reason to look up. And yet, when the sky darkens and the temperature drops, I find myself watching the ceiling, as if my keen eyesight might detect a problem in time to do something about it. What I might do, I don't know. This is akin to the guy driving down the road with a mattress strapped to the top of his car with his hand out the window holding it down. What exactly does he think he can do? What could I do?


And right now, I can do nothing but sit and listen to the sound of rain, still scanning the rafters for trouble.

Look for a big post later this week about the staff's field trip to the North Carolina Transportation Museum. Stay tuned and stay dry.


Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Tales from the front [office]

We get a lot of different people here at the museum, and they get here a lot of different ways, coming for a lot of different reasons. We'd like to share a few of our favorite stories with you.

We'll begin with a man from Switzerland. He had never been to the United States before, so he decided he wanted to see as much of it as he could while he was here. He bought a car in Vermont, plans to drive all over the country before ending up in California where he'll sell the car before flying home. He stopped here along the way today.

Next up is an Australian gentleman. He befriended a Canadian couple some years ago when they were on holiday in Australia. Since then, they have taken an annual holiday together, choosing different countries each year. This year, they chose the United States, specifically Virginia for the 400th anniversary of Jamestown. They saw Jamestown, Colonial Williamsburg, Richmond, Appomattox, and Roanoke before heading up to D.C. to make their separate ways home. Their previous holidays took them to Bali, England, Eastern Europe, Chile and Argentina, and China.

One of this blogger's personal favorites is a couple from Hawaii. They got married in Hawaii, but chose to come to Roanoke, Virginia on their honeymoon. Why? Each was a die-hard train buff, and they wanted to see our own #611. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, they were only in Roanoke for one day on their way to Bermuda (still, why go to Bermuda if you live in Hawaii? What do they have that you don't?), but they stopped here just to see us.

The following story is one we hear almost weekly. Let's paint a picture. An older couple, retired, show up in an RV. The husband collects model trains, may have worked for the railroad, or just likes trains. The wife could probably care less, but through an osmotic process, she's as knowledgeable as he is. Usually, he'll spend a few hours in the rail yard whilst she wanders the museum, lingering in the gift shop for a while. This happens at least once a week, nearly every week of the year.

Then there are the hikers and drivers. South of Roanoke is the Blue Ridge Parkway, one of the most scenic and beautiful drives anywhere in the country. Roanoke is a natural stop, being located centrally along the Parkway. North of Roanoke runs a portion of the Appalachian Trail. People stop in town for much the same reason. During the summer, hikers abound. In the spring and fall, the Parkway may as well be I-81 with all the traffic on it to see spring blooming and fall foliage.

Let's not forgot the Hobo King, who graced the museum with his Presence not so long ago. He traveled in here in an old Jeep (which may or may not have belonged to him; just kidding... we hope) out of which he seemed to live as there were many clothes and odd items in the vehicle.

The most touching story this blogger has encountered involves an older gentleman. He met his late wife riding on the Cavalier behind our #611. They were married for many years and enjoyed a large family. After his wife passed away, he brought his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren to the museum to see #611, without which none of them might exist. The man was originally from West Virginia, though he and his wife met somewhere over the rails on a 60 miles-per-hour train ride to the rest of their lives.

In our lobby, on one of the walls is an old saying. It reads:

No matter how you got here, transportation brought you.


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Wednesday, May 9, 2007

A House Divided...

Fair warning: this post is long.

There is an unwritten rule in the museum world -- museums don't compete with each other.

In some areas, it could be very easy for museums to fall into the trap of trying to compete with one another. Museums sharing similar missions, foci, or collections in a relatively close geographical proximity might feel that they are in competition with one another. Even museums separated by hundreds or thousands of miles may feel that another museum is trying to steal exhibit X or hoard collection Y. All of these things aside, museums cannot compete with one another. To do so is suicide. Here's why.

There is another competitor in this arena. Museums in the same city or region on a certain level do compete with one another for visitors, but typically, patrons of a science museum are not likely to visit an historic home or a botanical garden, and vice-versa. However, museums do compete, collectively, with the other entertainment venues in that city or region. Shopping malls, movie theaters, festivals, sporting events -- these are the real competition.

One museum trying to attract visitors in a certain city must naturally compete with that city's other attractions for attention, visitation, and money. That's a big enough challenge by itself. Why add to it trying to compete with another museum whose mission, however similar to its own, is still different? Lincoln wrote that "A house divided against itself cannot stand...." Boy was he on to something. Competition can be fatal. Competition may be irrelevant.

For a city of less than 100,000 citizens, Roanoke has a lot of museums. There are seven in the city proper -- the O. Winston Link Museum, the Art Museum of Western Virginia, the Science Museum of Western Virginia, the History Museum of Western Virginia, the Harrison Museum of African-American Culture, the Mill Mountain Zoo, and your own Virginia Museum of Transportation. If we expand our radius a bit, we get the Salem Museum, the Blue Ridge Institute and Farm Museum, Explore Park, and the sundry museums at the Natural Bridge. That's a dozen museums within an hour's drive of Roanoke, and this list is not exhaustive. This is a sizable list of institutions for any community.

Despite the abundance of these cultural institutions, there is not yet a consistent or reliable answer to the often-heard question, "What is there to do in Roanoke?" There remains an ignorance about what is here and what the various cultural institutions do.

When VMT hosted its holiday open house last December, we had more than a few guests make the comment, "I didn't even know you all were still around." This is staggering, really, and a wake-up call for our self-important campaigns and attempts at service. If people in our own home town don't know we're here, how could we ever hope to attract people from out of town?

And yet, people from out of town know us and visit us far more frequently and consistently than townies. To the tune of 80%. So what does that mean for our efforts in town?

What if all of the area museums banded together and combined their advertising and marketing? What if they all stopped competing with one another and started competing with movie theaters and golf courses? No, it's not a fight that could ever be won, but it's one that would make the right moves and promote each museum better than any one could do on its own.

There's precedent for this, too. In Madison, Wisconsin, and in the Bronx in New York, museums have joined forces to advertise and market themselves. Sometimes it means pooling money for billboards or radio spots. Other times it means joint fund raisers that benefit all of the institutions. Still other times, it's just a forum for the museum members to share ideas and problems and benefit from the others' experiences.

We see no reason that can't happen in Roanoke. In some ways, its infant stages can be seen even now. Center in the Square encompasses three of Roanoke's seven museums, and has close ties to the O. Winston Link Museum. Imagine what kind of resources all seven institutions could share. Imagine a single joint ticket good for admission to each museum, good for a whole week. It already exists in part. VMT, the Link, and the History Museum of Western Virginia already operate a joint ticket program, sharing revenue with one another and providing a natural increase in attendance to each participating institution. This is not the venue for competition; it's the venue for collaboration.

Competition should be irrelevant.

Think of a shuttle service that connects each museum with other points in town. The Valley Metro service already stops in front of most of the institutions. Why not initiate a visitor-oriented route, stopping at each museum and all the major local hotels and hot spots?

Think of a high-quality, professional brochure available in every hotel and visitor station in the area. The brochure would feature beautiful photography, in-depth descriptions of what each institution offers, ticket prices, contact information, and even coupons for discounts at museum stores or exhibitions. One brochure, not seven. Seven visitors, not one.

Competition should be irrelevant.

What's truly distinctive about Roanoke's museums is that not one is state funded. Don't get us wrong, we all receive some state funding, but for most of us, it's not enough to pay the electric bill for the year, no less to fund operations. We're not saying this is bad. What we're saying is that private organizations know their communities better than any state agency could. The programs that we can offer are catered to the exact and specific needs and interests of our community. Complete state funding might very well dampen that effect as budget questions ultimately get answered in Richmond, not Roanoke.

The side effect of this specialized service is that we struggle to do these things for the always ugly reason of not enough dollars. There aren't enough dollars when they're spread among football teams, roller skating rinks, art galleries, museums, public parks... the list is endless. But if a contingent can get together and present themselves in a unified way, their voice is louder, their draw greater. More dollars flow that way, and these private organizations increase their service and enhance their offerings. Everyone wins.

Competition is irrelevant.

Friday, May 4, 2007

To attempt to describe the railroad's presence and influence in the city of Roanoke over the years is to attempt to describe a rainbow to a blind man. Roanoke still bears the marks of its illustrious rail heritage, much as an older man may still show some pocks from his pimpled youth.

A quick look around town will confirm this. Consider The Great 611 Steak Company*, a local restaurant adorned in the colors and images of Norfolk & Western's own #611. The Norfolk Southern shops still dominate the city skyline on the other side of I-581. There are dozens of bridges and overpasses for trains. Shaffer's Crossing is the largest rail yard in Virginia west of Richmond. Some of the most popular events in the town's history have been when locomotives came into or left this museum, much like the fanfare that accompanied their births at the shops down the street.

One other rail tribute lives in Roanoke. Actually, it lives above Roanoke at the Mill Mountain Zoo. The Zoo Choo, a miniature train, has operated at the zoo for more than half a century, happily transporting visitors around the zoo whilst bombarding them with views of the valley that are truly unmatched. The Zoo Choo is every bit an institution in Roanoke.

Last night, it was announced that the Zoo Choo is moving.

The train is owned by the Roanoke Jaycees, but has chugged along atop Mill Mountain for more than 50 years. The zoo asked the Jaycees to remove the train as they wished to purchase a train for themselves, no longer wishing to split the revenue from the Jaycees' engine. Looking for a new home, the Jaycees contacted us, and we said yes.

To place the train here requires a healthy bit of construction that we cannot guarantee to be completed for next year (the train will move out of the zoo in November of 2007). A track pattern resembling a dog bone will be placed outside in our rail yard. At several points, it will cross the tracks on which its larger cousins rest. These sections will be made removable so that we can move the pieces in our collection as needed. This means elevating the entirety of the mini-train's track and filling with ballast and wood.

One consideration is to relocate and repaint the old Ellitt station which sits outside the museum for use as the ticket booth. Another would be to purchase tickets inside at the front desk or gift shop, though the station idea is obviously preferable.

The Jaycees would operate the train, hiring all the engineers and maintenance workers. The terms of the financial agreement would be as they were with the Mill Mountain Zoo -- VMT and the Jaycees will split the net return.

This is a fitting home for the Zoo Choo. When the museum was located in Wasena Park, it operated a miniature train of its own. That train, however, was actually a tractor with a fiberglass shell over it, far from the sophistication of this entity. Moreover, the zoo will not be without a train forever. The zoo already has plans to purchase a train that it would own and operate itself, so the Zoo Choo will yet live.

One of the single most common requests at VMT from visitors is for a train ride. Since Norfolk Southern's main east-west line sits right behind the museum, this is nearly impossible. However, the Zoo Choo is an excellent compromise and will provide a fine base of operations for the next fifty years of its life, riding the rails in the shadows of the giants that inspired it.

*VMT collaborates with The Great 611 Steak Company. A receipt from the museum is good for 10% off your meal at the restaurant, and your meal receipt is good for 10% off admission to the museum.

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Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Graffiti is an interesting thing. In some areas, it's used simply to deface property. In other areas, it marks territory. In yet other areas, it can be effective, and often moving artwork. But graffiti at VMT is another thing altogether.

When we were kids, a fun thing to do was to carve our names into trees or picnic tables or benches or anything that could be chipped away with a young boy's pocket knife. I think we can all remember desks in our schools which bore the names of students from years past, letting us know that they "were here."

What have these two paragraphs to do with one another? When synthesized, they lead to the subject of this post.

In our railyard, we have a large collection of locomotives, baggage cars, dining cars, cranes, and other rail equipment. Located directly beside Norfolk Southern's main east-west line, this equipment picks up a considerable amount of dust and dirt kicked up by the nearly constant passing of freight trains. Add to this the pollen of spring, and what's created on the sides of these metal monsters is a thick plaster of dirt out of which is carved with bony fingers the markings of who "was here."

What follows is a photo essay of our graffiti. Note its different purposes. Greetings, dates, relationships, and even religion. Also, please note that we haven't cleaned these in a little too long.

Alas. A love lost before it began.

Hello, yourself. Come on in and write on things. No, really, it's cool.

The date of this scribbling is 6-2-06. When I think about how many times it's rained since June of last year, and that this is still here, it's almost sickening.

This is easily the best of the lot. One wonders if the person enjoys the food, (and if so, what kind of pie) or the number and the person just can't spell.

In addition to his playhouse, PeeWee also had hopper cars.

A rat fink? Really? It's like Sinatra came back from the grave just to insult Gideon. Who says "rat fink" any more?

The family that vandalizes together...

Religion is not absent from VMT. Neither is Jesus.

This panel doesn't seem all that remarkable...

until you find out that the panel is eight feet in the air on this piece. How did they get up there?

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