Railway Museums in Canada and the U.S.A.: Struggling for Recognition

Proposal by Ken Heard for a presentation to the York (UK) Railway Heritage Conference in September 2001

But because of 11 September 2001 was never delivered.

            The year 1951 marked the beginning of railway and tramway preservation in Canada as well as the United Kingdom.  In that year a tram was preserved in Canada with a view to the ultimate creation of a Canadian railway and tramway museum.  This tram is now part of the collection of the Canadian Railway Museum near Montreal, which was first opened to the public in 1961.

            In the U.S.A. preservation of  railway artifacts for museological purposes started much earlier.  The core of what is now the collection of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Museum was first assembled in 1892.  It had been on display sporadically since then, although the Museum itself was not permanently established and regularly open to the public until 1953.

            For the most part the movement to establish railway and tramway museums in Canada and the U.S.A. was populist as opposed to elitist.  At the beginning of the movement very few established museums were interested in rail or tram history -- or for that matter technology in general.  At first the movement comprised interested amateurs pursuing their own interests with few museological preoccupations.  They consequently gained the reputation of being big boys who like to play with full size trains for their own amusement.

            While the movement has grown considerably since its beginnings and has gradually adopted a more professional approach to its activities, it still has not lived down this reputation.  One reason is the perception that railway museums are not "real" museums.  Their artifacts are not hung on walls or displayed in glass cases where visitors can revere them.  Instead, the emphasis is on providing visitors with an experience.  Consequently their standards of exhibition, conservation and artifact use are quite different.  These differences are only imperfectly understood by the general museum community in each country -- and for the most part by those who fund museums.

            Nevertheless, the growth of railway museums in each country generally has conformed with the pattern of museum funding in each country.  In Canada about 72% of direct expenditures on museums come from the public sector and the rest from the private.  In the U.S.A. the percentages are reversed.  Consequently government support to museums in the U.S.A. is mostly indirect -- through tax expenditures -- whereby governments in effect support activities initiated by citizens.  In Canada by contrast, funding decisions are largely made by the financial and bureaucratic elites.

            In the U.S.A. the populism of the movement is allowing it to some degree to fit in to the predominant source of museum funding there.  In Canada it is more difficult to convince the elites to fund railway museums -- and other transport and technology museums for that matter -- commen-
surate with the crucial role they have all played in Canadian politics, economics, society and culture.

            In addition to elaborating on the summary above, in particular describing the concept of tax expenditures and its importance in Canada and the U.S.A., my presentation would have examined:

    1.    The relative success -- or lack thereof -- of the railway museum movements in Canada and
           the U.S.A in securing for railway museums recognition as museums worthy of support on the
           same basis as other human history museums such as art galleries, and

    2.    Measures which can be undertaken in each country to secure that recognition and the
           benefits which should thereby accrue, such as stable funding.

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