Globalising Transport and Communications in Our Museums: Back to Basics

Presentation to the IATM Copenhagen Conference in May 2001 by Ken Heard

            The articles in the IATM yearbooks and the papers delivered at the conferences are good indicators of the major concerns of transport and communications museums over the years.   Some recurring themes of these articles and papers are museum visitor interaction; adaptation to changing visitor demographics; use of new technology; conservation versus demonstrative use of large industrial artifacts; collections management; museum ethics, especially with respect to controversial subjects; finance; and use of volunteers.

             These themes are important and deserve the attention they are receiving.  However, in the course of thirty years of study and research, and visits to hundreds of such museums all over the world, what I have not yet seen -- either in most of those museums, at IATM conferences or in IATM publications -- are, first, answers to basic questions about the technology depicted in those museums and, second, the actual and potential effect of these technologies on our daily lives.

            Among the basic questions I have yet to see adequately answered in a museum setting are:

                1.    What is a railway?

                2.    What keeps a ship afloat?

                3.    What keeps an airplane in the air?

            Among the effects of these technologies on our daily lives which I have yet to see adequately depicted in transport and communications museums are the following:

    1.    People now living more than walking distance from their place of work and from their
           primary sources of food and fuel.

    2.    Improved standards of living and quality of life occasioned by availability of cheap transport
           and communication.

    3.    Changing concepts of work and leisure.

    4.    Effects of the infrastructure and conventions of transport and communication on the general
           culture, such as the rule of the road, traffic control, and snow removal.

    5.    Possibility of environmental degradation, with lower standards of living and decreased quality
           of life if too much reliance is put on some forms of transport instead of others.

     6.    Implications of the fact that by 2020 the world will have run out of cheap oil.

            In short, these museums historically have concentrated on the demonstration of the various technologies themselves.  Relatively little attention has been given to the basic principles on which those technologies are based, on the results of the introduction and subsequent improvement of those technologies, and on the problems created by unfettered growth of their use.  My presentation examined the implications of this relative lack of attention and  made suggestions as to what could be done about it.

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