Last November, I visited York’s National Railway Museum with two friends for the first time. As someone more interested in the history of people over technology, I was pleasantly surprised by the breadth and depth of the museum and enjoyed it much more than I thought I would have. Their great collection makes fantastic use of the available space and includes Royal Train carriages, vintage posters galore, and the only bullet train outside Japan. It is a museum that lets you get up, close, and personal; and your inner child won’t be able to stop squealing when you see the Hogwarts Express! Beyond the mechanics and engineering, what I love most about NRM is the embedded social history. There are many photographs of everyday people using the railway accompanied with anecdotes that humanise would could be a very sterile and, literally, machine-driven collection.
Following this visit, I was enthused to apply for an NRM placement in its archive division rationalising a photographic collection with photographs dating as far back as the 1870s. As an MA History student with an interest in heritage preservation, it seemed appropriate to see how visual culture is first disseminated and interpreted for a wider audience. My placement was centred on the Stanier House collection, obtained in the 1980s, which contains 72 boxes of an estimated 40,000 photographs produced to publicise British Railways before its contraction. My task was concerned with the first phase of digitising the collection to make it accessible for research and exhibitions. My objectives were to begin digitally cataloguing the collection by documenting the prints and to disposing duplicate material. This would set the foundation for the next phase of detailed cataloguing and digitisation.
During my placement, I was able to catalogue 38 boxes – an estimated 21,000 photographs. The work was relatively easy, consisting of going through themed envelopes, putting duplicates to one side, and writing a basic description to populate a spreadsheet. As a collection rooted in public relations, the mundane task of filtering was made interesting by the varied content. My pace slowed when I began extraneous research on prints which I deemed attention-grabbing or have cultural significance in British history. For example, I came across photographs showing the destruction at Euston railway station in London following the IRA bomb in 1973 in a crudely named ‘1973 bomb, Euston’ envelope; and photographs of the nameplate ceremony for Airey Neave, named after the assassinated Conservative MP, which was attended by Margaret Thatcher.
Working with a photographic collection in a museum context gave me hands-on experience in handling, documentation, and rationalisation; and I was rather pleased to contribute to NRM’s rich photographic collection. Being embedded in an office was an excellent primer into how an archive works behind-the-scenes as I was able to observe how the NRM fulfils its services in day-to-day operations. In addition to my Stanier House duties, I attended meetings with a conservationist and an artist; both meetings showed me how the NRM accomplishes its long-term strategies for exhibitions and instalments with awareness of cost, impact, and general interest. Working with the NRM under its extensive and widely-accommodating volunteer programme, I found the role to be enriching with reinforced appreciation for back of house roles, and a greater understanding of how a national museum works.