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Sunday, June 09, 2013

Will the National Railway Museum Really Close?

Despite the fact that I spend a large amount of my time in the United Kingdom, I do not spend much time commenting on railway issues affecting the birthplace of railways as we know them. That is not to say that nothing is happening. On the contrary, between HS2 and the inevitable moaning about fare hikes, hardly a day goes by without some concern being voiced.

This week's focus has been squarely on the future direction of the National Railway Museum. The NRM has received a great deal of negative press over the cost of the temporary repatriation of the A4s, the ongoing restoration of Flying Scotsman and the poor turnout for last year's Railfest. This week, the Science Museum Group, the parent body of the NRM (as well as the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester and the National Media Museum in Bradford) announced that, due to looming budget cuts, it was having to consider reinstating admission fees or even closing one of the three northern museums to balance the books.

The revelation has been in the news for much of the week, notably in the York Press, which has started an online campaign to save the NRM. Not only would the closure be a blow to York's tourist trade, but would mean job losses and the loss of one of the world's leading railway heritage centres.

At first, I thought that the threat of closure was a move to force the government to increase funding, but the degree of concern from local government leaders suggests that the closure of at least one of the museums is a real possibility. It is worth noting that nobody has suggested that a London museum could be closed. Once again, the north is to take the brunt of cost-cutting.

Which museum is most likely to close? I would guess the Media Museum in Bradford because, in my experience, the British do not value the history of the media as an important subject. The NRM is far too big to fail (of course, that didn't stop the 2008 banking crisis), but I do wonder about the future of the satellite location in Shildon.

Most commentary so far has suggested the re-implementation of admission charges would be the most likely course of action, but some commentators have even suggested privatising the museum by handing it over to the railway companies. This is not an approach I favour given the track record of privatisation in the UK rail sector. What is needed is increased funding from the public sector and perhaps fewer large-scale events such as the upcoming A4 gathering in York.

It is hard to say what the eventual outcome will be, but allow me to say this: Congratulations UK, you are catching up with North America's disregard for history!

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