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RyPN Editorials February 4, 2002
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Tackling the Tough Issues
Curating Collections at the Museum of Transportation

Editor's Note: The Museum of Transportation in St. Louis, MO is the custodian of one of the most comprehensive collections of historic railroad locomotives and rolling stock in North America. As collectors, MOT's founding members assembled a treasure-trove of rare and one-of-a-kind artifacts. However, as curators those same early members were less fortunate. MOT was established on a challenging site with a less-than-ideal physical plant, and struggled for decades in an uncertain and fluctuating funding environment. Even the museum's most ardent friends will concede that care of the collection left a great deal to be desired for years if not decades. (If the story seems sad but familiar, it should--much the same can be said of the Jensen, Blount, and other early collections as well. Not all was heroic in railway preservation's Homeric Age.)

Since control of the collection passed into the hands of the St. Louis County Department of Parks and Recreation, MOT has made strides towards restoring the railroad collection to a sound condition. However, as recent posts RyPN's Interchange have made clear, the institution is still viewed with skepticism by some in the railway preservation community.

In this guest editorial, MOT Curator of Collections Molly Butterworth takes the opportunity to reflect on where MOT has been and where it is going, and explains Mot's current mission statement, collections policy, and restoration, capital spending, and fundraising plans.

N&W Y-6a #2156 following its cosmetic restoration.

N&W Y-6a #2156 following its cosmetic restoration.

Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I share the same alma mater as the esteemed John White. Or perhaps it was my flowery descriptions of previous experience that made internships sound as if I had been running entire museums when, in fact, only the people behind the lunch counter had known my name. But I still think that it was my answer to one solitary question in April of 1997 that landed me the job as Curator of Collections at the Museum of Transportation.

"So, what do you think of the place?" then-MOT Director Wayne Schmidt asked during my second interview, after he learned that I had recently paid my four bucks and toured the place like any other visitor.

"Well, it's pretty obvious there hasn't been a curator here for a while," I replied. I was shocked to hear the words coming out of my mouth but not as shocked as the poor lady from Personnel, who nearly fell out of her chair before glaring at me and scribbling furiously on her notepad. Wayne, however, was intrigued. As a man whose brutal honesty befitted his upbringing in Chicago's South Side, and as the first director to introduce restoration and preservation to the neglected Museum of Transportation, he appreciated my frank assessment of the piles of rust sitting outside his office.

When the job offer came a few weeks later, I was torn between MOT and the director's position at the National Cosmetology Museum. Well, not too torn - I didn't even own a hairdryer. Besides, it looked as if there was enough work for a lifetime at MOT, which both frightened and challenged me.

So, I signed on to take care of one of the largest, most significant, most diverse, most important, and most neglected collections of transportation artifacts in the world. The biggest and most important part of that collection was an extraordinary collection of locomotives and rolling stock. Indeed, I had been given the stewardship of the one rail collection that the Smithsonian Institution had once said it would choose over all others for significance. But I wasn't a railfan. I hadn't even ridden a train since I was five, and I had never given any thought to railroads or trains other than to curse them at crossings in my Ohio hometown. I had no choice, then, but to approach the collection as a curator rather than a railfan. And therein lies the framework for the long-term collections plan that was set in motion nearly five years ago and continues to this day at the Museum of Transportation.

Very simply, it can be summed up thus:

(preserve) Identify (preserve) Select (preserve) Develop (preserve) Interpret (preserve)

The very first and most important objective was to begin a plan of "emergency preservation." Unfinished projects had to be completed, roof holes and broken windows and doors fixed, and asbestos and lead paint issues addressed. Two members of the maintenance crew were split off to form a restoration crew that reported to the curator, and the restoration volunteers were reorganized to report to the curator. Staff and volunteers were trained in museum theory as it relates to restoration and preservation and in the language of museums. The pieces were artifacts, not equipment. We do exhibits, not displays. And reversible and irreversible actions are polarities that must not be interchanged. The vital differences between restoring an object versus conserving or preserving it and the importance of preserving the historical fabric of artifacts were focal points of instruction. Within just a few weeks, the phrases, "Don't throw that away" and "Don't alter that" were being thrown around the shop. At that point, I began giving yearly preservation and restoration plans to the staff and volunteers and supervised them closely until the ball was rolling fast enough for me to concentrate on the less gritty and glamorous but equally important parts of developing the collection.

St. Louis Waterworks #10 streetcar following its operational restoration.

St. Louis Waterworks #10 streetcar following its operational restoration.

The primary tool for every museum in terms of collections development is a logical and enforceable collections policy. While MOT's old policy was voluminous, its premise of collecting anything marginally related to transportation did not give the Museum the one thing it needs above all else - the grounds and the ability to say no. A collections policy addresses issues ranging from what should be collected, preserved, and interpreted; to how loans, accessions, and deaccessions are handled; to the creation and maintenance of a collections committee; to the ethical standards expected of everyone associated with the institution. It identifies the collection collection and the confines of the collecting scope.

To begin, we refined the mission from collecting anything even remotely related to transportation to collecting, preserving, and interpreting only North American transportation heritage. It's still a very large collecting scope, and it will likely have to be refined even further in the future, but it's a starting point.

One thing we did not want to do was remove the national scope. The regionalization and repatriation of rail artifacts seems to be a popular battle cry these days, particularly among Eastern railfans, and a regional collecting scope is certainly viable and even necessary for most rail museums. However, when the Museum of Transportation was founded nearly sixty years ago, few institutions existed to collect and preserve transportation and particularly railroad heritage. The Museum's founders recognized the need to collect representative examples of railroad technology, design, and development while an entire national railroading heritage was still available simply for the asking from railroads that were scrapping equipment as quickly as possible. MOT was in the unique position of being able to select the best of the best and pursue selected wheel arrangements, types, and innovations rather than certain railroads.

That's not to say certain pieces weren't turned down and lost either because of lack of space or the desire for something more "typical." A certain long-gone Hiawatha 4-4-2 and the entire Pennsy collection at Northumberland come to mind. However, the MOT's founders still ended up with arguably the most representative and thorough visual history of American railroading anywhere.

Most locomotives and pieces of rolling stock in the collection, including some of the pieces most desired by fans of other institutions, play irreplaceable roles in MOT's effort to trace and define the evolution of railroading technology and its impact on the commerce and population movement in North America. To begin disassembling this uniquely synoptic collection in the name of "good will" or "spreading it around" would be a great disservice to the rail preservation movement as a whole. A collection like ours was not duplicated elsewhere during the glory days of railroading, and the opportunity to recreate it is now forever lost. To break it up would be incomprehensible. If national museums of aviation and automobiles are justifiable, certainly maintaining a national collection of railroad technology is as well.

While the new policy maintained the national scope, it did not permit us to retain certain artifacts in the collection at MOT. Therein lies the important selection process. Deaccessioning policies were carefully developed and clearly defined. Deaccessioning is a sometimes painful but very necessary tool to be wielded carefully and judiciously in order to keep a collection thriving. The elimination of anything non-transportation-related, as well as a reduced tolerance for duplicates, meant certain artifacts had to be identified and removed from the collection sympathetically and responsibly.

The collections policy also guides us as we develop the collection by identifying holes in the collection and allowing for continual upgrading, while still providing the grounds to say "no" to prospective donations. Gifts are now carefully scrutinized and presented to the collections committee for approval prior to acceptance. Of the items now offered, more are turned away than are accepted and accessioned into the collection.

For the last five years, I have made the conscious decision to delay interpreting the collection to the degree I'd like to see. Instead, I've concentrated on using our limited funding to work on preservation of the collection. The interpretation of a collection defines a museum as much and sometimes more than the collection itself. Indeed, interpretation is one of the very primary missions of any museum. Even so, the condition of the collection a few years ago required immediate remedial action if we were still to have a collection to interpret.

Since then we have made some progress in interpretation. Most pieces of rolling stock are clearly labeled and defined, but there is still much to be done in interpreting social history and tracing technological development. The new site master plan, the success of which is dependent upon fundraising for our capital campaign, includes a new visitors' center on our lower level, with an automobile wing and a railroad wing. The railroad wing will provide an opportunity for more interpretation, particularly of the evolution of railroading and its impact on the development of the United States, as well as a climate-controlled space for three smaller but significant and fragile pieces - the Daniel Nason, Black Diamond, and our Boston & Providence coach, which dates to 1833. Site surveys are being completed, and bids from architectural firms are being reviewed.

Click on image to enlarge.  The current MOT master site development plan.

The current MOT master site development plan.

So has the process-- (preserve) Identify (preserve) Select (preserve) Develop (preserve) Interpret (preserve)-- worked? In the last five years, we have:

  • Restored or conserved no fewer than forty pieces of rolling stock according to yearly preservation plans
  • Moved nearly every piece of wooden rolling stock under cover and preserved those that were not moved
  • Deaccessioned the agricultural and stationary engine collections resulting in increased space and resources for the rest of the collection
  • Deaccessioned nearly two dozen automobiles
  • Just recently identified and deaccessioned two pieces of rolling stock from the rail collection that are awaiting new homes
  • Filled holes or replaced existing pieces with the acquisition of a B&O dome, an RDC, and two pieces from the Arkansas & Missouri
  • Launched a capital campaign
  • Developed a new master plan for a streetcar loop, new bathroom facilities, a new visitors' center, an additional trainshed, and a new artifact storage facility - the sum of which is over $6 million, nearly half of which has been raised or pledged
  • Hired a Curator for the Library and Archives and a Collections Assistant to oversee an extraordinary but often forgotten part of MOT's collection
  • Further developed the volunteer program, resulting in 40,000 volunteer hours annually
  • Created a new part-time seasonal Restoration Assistant position

We're not patting anybody on the back, though. Years of preservation work, revisions and refinements to the collections policy, further deaccessioning, and extensive interpretive efforts lie ahead of us. And in the near future we'll be tackling our first major conservation--as distinct from restoration--effort, the Reading Black Diamond. Documenting its conservation process will be an invaluable tool for teaching staff and volunteers the differences between carefully cleaning and documenting a fragile but intact object and restoring it by creating a great deal of new or replacement fabric. Anyone who has visited the Black Diamond recently will note that it is in very good condition and does not require restoration, which would compromise its historic integrity. We are in the beginning stages of planning a seminar focusing on its conservation for presentation during the 2003 Association of Railway Museums National Conference, which will be hosted by the Museum of Transportation.

We're taking our responsibility as stewards of the collection at the Museum of Transportation very seriously. Only those who have not visited it lately continue to view MOT as a haven of neglect and prideful arrogance. We welcome constructive questions and interest and are more than happy to share our collections policy with both friends and skeptics.