Monday, March 31, 2008

Listening to the Museum

Stories. In my last blog I highlighted the need for stories. Museums need to tell the dramas of people and their interactions with the exhibits on display.

Part of the genius of Winston Link’s photographs of Norfolk & Western steam trains was that he didn’t merely take “train pictures.” He captured the railroad’s interaction with the environment around it, a way of life that was disappearing as quickly as those steam locomotives.

VMT has plenty of stories. Some of them are already being told vividly and elegantly, such as the exhibit, “African American Heritage on the Norfolk & Western Railroad, 1930-70.” Others lie there like undiscovered treasure. I have already suggested some possibilities. Here are others.

Though the Museum of Transportation focuses on the N&W more than any other railroad, much gold remains to be mined. Consider this. What other rail museum lets you stand next to mammoth locomotives, gaze just steps away at the tracks along which they once stormed, then glance a few blocks down the street where those fire-bellowing creatures were created.

What about the drama of the big little railroad that “ran from nowhere to nowhere,” as someone characterized its lack of access to major metropolises, succeeding because it did almost everything more efficiently than its competitors? Then there is the story of the mouse that ate the cat—how the N&W, once owned in part by the Pennsylvania RR, turned the tables when Norfolk Southern bought half of Conrail, the successor to the Pennsy and other bankrupt northeastern roads.

Even the former freight station that houses VMT tells tales, as the words of a newer staff member describe:

When the museum is calm and I sit in the quiet of the building, I feel that old freight station trying to communicate with me. It speaks audibly in groans and creaks, bumps and bangs. The building seems to be telling a silent story, too. The floor fascinates me. I want to know the story of the holes, the chips, the ruts in the concrete. How about the wooden bricks and the scales? Who or what chipped the floor; what was weighed on the scales? How many times did those baggage carts transport goods from a box car to the loading dock? Light floods through the upper windows today, just as it did 80 years ago. Today it illuminates the artifacts that tell a story about transportation. But in 1918 it illuminated the people and machines that wrote the story.

Then there are the stories that our guests bring to us. That is what I like best about the museum: meeting our guests and listening to their stories. For so many people, coming to the museum is more like a pilgrimage than a tourist stop. They remember the 611 when it passed through their town or behind their home. They remember their daddy or granddaddy who was an engineer, a fireman, or who worked in the shops. They remember the last excursions of the 611 and still experience a shiver of excitement when they recall riding behind the majestic locomotive. The stories people tell about the trains are an absolute delight. I have learned so much from them.

Perhaps the thing that has surprised me most is the passion our guests feel for trains, especially the 611. Actually, passion is not a strong enough word. People have bonded with that engine. It is not an inanimate machine; it is a piece of their lives and an anchor that ties them to their own family history. They love that engine!

So many stories.

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Monday, March 24, 2008

Telling Stories

Stories. Everyone loves a good story. From tiny toddler to old codger, from high school dropout to Ph. D., we all get hooked by stories.

They capture our attention and tickle our imagination. They entwine us in their plots. They captivate us with their color.

Think of the speeches, lectures, and sermons you’ve heard. After you had forgotten the talking points and the statistics, you remembered the tales about people and places and hopes and hardships.

To me, one of the most significant observations made in the museum consultants’ study of VMT is the importance of exhibits that tell stories. Information isn’t enough. Facts and figures are fine, but it’s the narrative that engrosses the visitor and makes the museum experience spring to life.

We’re already doing this in some areas. The new Advance Auto gallery does not merely offer a lineup of old cars. A curving roadway with guard rails, traffic markers, Burma Shave signs and a country gas station add drama. Helping to thread the story together are the VDOT displays, “From Mud to Mobility,” which track a century of highway development in Virginia. The context turns a static exhibit into a story.

The “African Americans on the Norfolk and Western” exhibit opens a treasure chest of firsthand accounts told in print and on video. Together those reminiscences piece together like a jigsaw puzzle to create a poignant and powerful picture of courageous men toiling with dignity amid an unjust system. In the same room, “Working the High Iron” carries you on a visual journey of the history of the N&W.

What other stories lie among the artifacts, ready to be given a spellbinding treatment?

How about coal? It was N&W’s lifeblood and the Virginian Railway’s almost sole reason for existence. The two roads raced neck and neck from mountain to ocean, each straining to transport the black gold faster and more economically than its rival. The Virginian even electrified its line between Roanoke and Mullens, West Virginia, a plot twist graphically illustrated by the hulking EL-C 135 electric loco still standing in the museum’s rail yard.

Coal’s story is implicit throughout VMT, from the HO scale tipple diorama to the giant tenders of the steam locomotives. It needs to be told more explicitly: how the coal was mined and transported to market, how the mines fueled the success of the railroads—literally and figuratively, where the coal went and how it was used. Such storytelling underlines the importance of restoring endangered equipment such as the three vintage coal hoppers rusting outside the museum.

Another storyline is the saga of the different railroads which ran through Virginia. Where did their tracks go? How did they compete and cooperate with one another? Where did they each end up during the years of merger mania? What developments led to Virginia becoming the headquarters of two of the “Big Four” rail giants remaining in America?

A ready-made tale of now and then lies as near as VMT’s back porch. There you can stand on the old freight docks, surveying the weathered survivors of steam and early diesel against the backdrop of a busy modern rail line, that of Norfolk Southern. What a great vantage point for telling how railroading today is alike and dissimilar to yesterday. For explaining how locomotives and rolling stock have changed. For depicting the goods that provide modern railroads’ revenue. You can see history and current events rubbing shoulders just steps away from where you stand.

So many stories to tell … these are just a few. What tales do you hear being whispered at VMT along the galleries and out in the yard?

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Friday, March 14, 2008

Trains or "Trans"

What If …?

De bait has been taken and debate has taken off.

The recently publicized report by Museum Management Consultants criticized VMT for being a transportation museum and recommended that it focus solely on railroads. That seems to have stirred as much reaction as anything in the report. Since then others have been weighing in on this issue, here and elsewhere.

“Trans” or trains? Potato or potahto? Is this a critical issue for the organization’s future?

I have some opinions. Some of you are already sharing yours. Before I add my two mashed-flat-on-the-tracks cents’ worth, though, I’d love to hear from more of you, as well as learn more details from those who are already “on record.”

So jump on in and splash around some.

Whaddya think? Should the place remain the Virginia Museum of Transportation or forsake its “official” Commonwealth status and do what it seems to do best? Why?

And if you think VMT should retain its current mission, how could it do the job better? Where should there be nips, tucks or complete overhauls? What should be changed, added, subtracted, or displayed differently? How much should the railroad theme be emphasized versus other modes of transportation?

On the other hand, if you are convinced that planes and cars should be barred and wagons and trucks should be shucked, what would you do with them? Would Roanoke accept such a change after 45 years of hybrid emphasis? Do you think a rails-only attraction would attract as many visitors? And how would you reorganize to create a successful railroad museum? What would you do with trains that is not already being done?

Then there is the geographical issue. Despite the General Assembly’s designation, if it refuses to provide funds, should VMT’s collection be tailored more to this part of Virginia and its unique transportation history? (To a degree, that is already the case with the preponderance of Norfolk & Western materials.) To what extent should the focus be on what Roanokers will support?

Much of this is purely theoretical at this point. Nevertheless, it’s fun to play armchair quarterback, I mean, engineer. Not only that, such a debate serves a valuable function. Whether VMT ever changes its mission, clarifying the answers to such questions can help sharpen the museum’s focus and increase its effectiveness.

At least more people are talking about VMT again. That in itself is progress.

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Monday, March 10, 2008

Keeping the Faith

Keeping Secrets and Keeping the Faith
March 10, 2008

The secret is finally out.

The Virginia Museum of Transportation is in trouble. Deep trouble. Museum Management Consultants says so. The newspaper says they say so. The newspaper’s editorial writers say that is so, so troubling.


The press and public comments last week were unfairly harsh. Yes, mistakes have been made and accountability is critical whenever you ask to spend other people’s dough. Given the extenuating circumstances and the dedicated efforts of current staff, however, a little less invective and a little more perspective would have been nice.

Ultimately the press coverage may serve as a blessing by raising public awareness, but it also highlighted a number of myths floating around.

Myth #1: There was a secret. Nobody has tried to keep this information hush-hush. The city commissioned the study. Norfolk Southern Foundation paid for it. VMT welcomed it. Visitors who know the place could see and sense it. It was a secret only to those who have remained out of touch with the place.

Myth #2: VMT’s problems are primarily due to bad management. What happens to any organization when it loses 48% of its budget support? Has to reduce staff to the bone (and remove a few ribs as well)? Changes leadership repeatedly? Has its ability to do marketing and outreach crippled?

Myth #3: The Museum appeals to a very limited audience. Is it just for tiny tots and old railroaders? Is it only a blue-collar museum (as though blue-collar folks aren’t important or can’t appreciate aesthetics)?

Actually, attractions like VMT appeal to a broad cross-section of the population. We Americans like “earthy” history exhibits. We especially like seeing and feeling and smelling the metal, wood and leather of things on wheels. And we love trains, even decades after American railroads passed their zenith.

Myth #4: The Museum decided to sell the Nickel Plate steam locomotive to pay bills. They reluctantly agreed to sell only after they were approached by another tourist organization and after they concluded that this loco, which never ran in Virginia, had little relevance to the mission of VMT.

And due to extraordinary circumstances, on this rare occasion the funds from such a sale were used for operations rather than acquisitions. Frankly, I would rather have an open facility with one less exhibit than a bankrupt and closed attraction with its exhibits intact.

Myth #5: VMT is just another museum—nice but not critical to Roanoke. I wish the reactions of media and public officials had been a little more “we” and less “they.” After all, there is no cultural attraction in Roanoke with the same intrinsic connections to the city as VMT. I appreciate Mill Mountain Theatre, the Roanoke Symphony, the Art and Science Museums. However, none of them relates to Roanoke and southwest Virginia the way those historic exhibits in that historic freight station do.

VMT carries the soul of Roanoke. The railroad transformed a bucolic village into a regional urban center. It put Roanoke on the map. Even now the rush and roar of trains bisect the heart of downtown. I have a stack of books on American railroading piled on my den table right now. In every one of them Roanoke’s growth and accomplishments via the railroad get significant attention.

No one did steam railroading as impressively for as long as the Norfolk and Western. No other railroad built its own locomotives and built them so well that they are still considered among the best ever manufactured more than a half-century later.

Vintage cars and buggies aside, that’s why VMT exists. That’s why the Winston Link Museum came here. Those two, the multi-million dollar Railwalk that connects them, and the continued imposing presence of N&W’s successor are integrated threads of a rich and unique tapestry.

Myth #6: VMT shouldn’t look to donors to rescue it from distress. Why not? It is a wonderful treasure worth saving. However financially successful it may become in the future, current circumstances require big hearts from both government and private parties.

The Museum of Transportation isn’t asking for a marvelous new building, just an adequately-maintained vintage facility. It doesn’t need a $3 million-plus operating budget, just sufficient funding to once again employ an adequate number of professional staff and effectively manage and market its product. It isn’t asking for millions to purchase new exhibits, just enough to restore and protect the irreplaceable pearls of transportation history it already has at its fingertips.

All that VMT’s leadership wants is the means to run a “mainline” operation once again rather than maneuver along a wobbly, rusty and overgrown side track.

That would be so, so …right.

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