Transport museums: Another kind of historiography

Transport museums: Another kind of historiographySome transport historians have long thought of museums as a suitable place in which to ply their craft. The late Jack Simmons, founding co-editor of this journal, was a passionate advocate of the educational benefits of transport museums and in 1970 published what for many years was the only book in English on the subject.1 In the 1960s he was largely responsible for the journal's ventures into museum reviewing, a practice recently revived after a lengthy period in abeyance.

At least one other leading history journal, Technology and Culture, regularly reviews exhibitions of transport, travel and mobility. Nor is this all; at least one article critically analysing the representation of the past on heritage railways has been published in this journal in the last few years.2 These are all very positive developments, not least because museums - like other mass media such as television - have the potential to reach audiences far in excess of the readership of the usual academic article or monograph; and most transport museums would certainly benefit from the help of historians.

Nevertheless I feel that few transport historians have got to grips with the peculiarities of museums and the ways they communicate with the public. Perhaps too there are still some scholars who are uneasy with any popularisation of their subject, regarding it as, at best, a second-string and, at worst, a second-rate activity offering a simplified and probably simplistic account of the past. There is something in this last point: no exhibition can deliver the kind of sophisticated and detailed arguments found in academic monographs or articles. But to expect this from a museum is to misunderstand its purpose. Gaining a sense of what, in educational terms, a museum is and, perhaps even more important, what it might become, is an essential step in recognising that there is nothing second-rate about the contribution that historians make to this kind of transport historiography. Helping the public to understand the past - public history, in one sense of an increasingly popular term - differs from academic history, narrowly defined, in its purpose and hence in some of its methods and techniques: but it need not be any the less scholarly, rigorous or challenging, whether the medium is a museum or some other kind of display, such as the re-enactment (living history) of a heritage transport operation (perhaps a steam railway or historic airfield).3

The academic training usually received by the transport historian and the methods of researching, writing and teaching conventional transport history provide useful knowledge and skills, but the public historian needs more. An exhibition is not a book, for all that it is sometimes useful to think of it as something that is 'written' by its creators and then 'read' by visitors. Communication is not only, or even primarily, through the written word; the ability to think spatially and to conceive of objects both as evidence and as a medium of communication is invaluable. True, historians who become involved with transport museums are likely to be part of a team and so will not need all the skills needed to produce an exhibition. But they will have much more to offer if they have a grasp of the peculiarities of exhibitions as a mass medium. They might even find that working in and with the museum sector encourages them to think about new lines of research. I have in mind both the kinds of subjects and theoretical perspectives scholars adopt in their academic historiography, and the intellectual challenges posed by the need to understand the museum as a medium of communication about the past.

Museums, visitors and 'the past'

All museums need to be clear about their audience, for otherwise they run the risk of telling stories that no one will hear. The principal audience is not always the member of the public who takes the time to walk round an exhibition; it might be a corporate client, for example. But, whatever the audience, exhibitors (that is, the museum staff responsible for mounting exhibitions) need to understand what visitors' interests might be, and which techniques of display are likely to engage their attention. Ideally, of course, one would also like to know what people take away from their experience of visiting a museum: whether, that is, exhibitions are indeed an effective way of 'teaching' about the past. Surprisingly little is known about the long-term educational benefits of museums, particularly those in the transport sector.4 This is certainly one area in which historians working in conjunction with museologists, sociologists, social psychologists and educationalists could contribute to our understanding of the public's appreciation of the history of transport, travel and mobility.

Nonetheless, some important conclusions have already emerged. To state the obvious, people visit transport museums for all sorts of reasons, many, perhaps most, of which have little or nothing to do with a predilection for (academic) history. Many visitors, for instance, derive a good deal of pleasure from the memories rekindled by seeing old vehicles dating from their youth. Yet there is plenty of evidence that, whether or not they visit museums regularly or at all, most people in once industrialised societies are interested in 'the past', chiefly as a way of understanding how that past has shaped their own lives and what lessons it might provide for the future.5 In other words, although people often feel distanced from history when it is presented in anything like the largely impersonal, abstract and unfamiliar explanations of much academic thought, they respond much more positively to a past perceived in personal terms, as relevant to their own lives.6 The very term 'public history' nicely captures the sense of a distinctive way of learning and knowing that results from people's engagement with museum exhibitions.

A sense of identity, of belonging or perhaps of exclusion, is central to this more personal way of knowing the past, and many writers theorise history museums, and indeed heritage sites more generally, as places that help to create and sustain this sense of identity through the individual and shared memories they trigger. Personal memories shape one's sense of oneself as an individual. But, as sites of collective memories, museums display and legitimate objects of cultural significance through which visitors may also acknowledge, commemorate, celebrate or perhaps even reflect on their membership of one or more social groups. Personal and collective memories meld, making and reproducing the shared identities that help to define us all as social beings. Equally, however, museums can exclude individuals, and whole social groups, from the collective memories and identities on display.7 Few museums, for instance, adequately display the part played by workers in the transport industries. 'What is at stake in struggles for control over objects and the modes of exhibiting them,' argues Ivan Karp, 'finally, is the articulation of identity': all exhibitions 'represent identity, either directly, through assertion, or indirectly, by implication'.8

These interrelated senses of belonging and exclusion are intimately bound up with the ways in which the past is publicly represented through myth. Myth, or 'heritage' in one sense of that much abused term, is often contrasted with 'history'. In David Lowenthal's formulation the essential difference is between a representation of the past orientated primarily towards the many and often conflicting purposes of the collective present ('heritage') and that which tries - although always and necessarily with less than total success - to understand the past in its own terms ('history'). Thus 'heritage now mainly denotes what belongs to and certifies us as communal members', it 'passes on exclusive myths of origin and continuance, endowing a select group of people with prestige and common purpose'.9 For this reason the truth or falsity of public representations of the past is, as Patrick Wright remarks, 'often peripheral to their practical appropriation in everyday life'.10 Myth/heritage, in Lowenthal's sense, wins out over history as we collectively define who we are (or think we are).

Such misrepresentation of 'the past' no doubt underlies the reluctance of some historians to become involved with museums. Criticisms of myth/heritage as 'bad history' often extend to seeing it as sustaining the interests of dominant social groups.11 Yet, without wishing for one moment to deny the validity of this kind of critique, I suggest that few, if any, of us in our everyday lives can tolerate a past in the state of turmoil occasioned by the doubts, uncertainties and contradictions of much academic historiography. Myth provides a welcome, and I suspect necessary, degree of stability to our collective - and hence individual - sense of identity.