Profile | 'We can all get dewy-eyed over Mallard, but that’s not helping us into the future' - Museums Association

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Profile | ‘We can all get dewy-eyed over Mallard, but that’s not helping us into the future’

Judith McNicol, the director of the National Railway Museum, is looking ahead with confidence, says Simon Stephens
Profile Transport
Photography by Orlando Gili

It can feel difficult to celebrate the history of Britain’s railways when the reality of travelling on the network today often feels like a never-ending battle with strikes, delays, cancellations and steeply rising prices.

Nevertheless, getting people excited about the past, present and future of our railways is the job of Judith McNicol, who became the director of the National Railway Museum in York in early 2018.

The organisation, part of the Science Museum Group, is currently working on a six-year plan to not only transform the York venue, but also Locomotion in Shildon.

The stated aim of the Vision 25 project is to “show the cutting-edge innovations shaping our world today – alongside the extraordinary birth and growth of the railways.

By celebrating the past, present and future of railways and engineering, we will capture the hearts and minds of the next generation of engineers, innovators and thinkers.”

Supporting the next generation of engineers is one of the things that excites McNicol about her role. And this is all part of her plan to make the museum more relevant to more people.

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Judith McNicol

Judith McNicol was appointed director of the National Railway Museum in York in February 2018. It’s a role she had been performing since July 2017 as acting director, and one that makes her the first woman to lead the museum in its 49-year history. McNicol has been based at the National Railway Museum since 2005, when she joined the Science Museum Group, and over that time she has held a number of group-wide director roles. Before the Science Museum Group, she had a background in marketing and venture capitalism.

The museum has an impressive collection, with iconic engines such as Mallard, InterCity 125, Duchess of Hamilton and a Shinkansen high-speed Japanese Bullet Train, the only one on public display outside Japan. But for McNicol, it is not enough to just look back.

“What we’ve always done well here as a museum is talk about the history of the railways – we’ve got amazing objects and amazing stories. But how do we make it relevant for today and the future? We can all get dewy-eyed over Mallard, but that’s not helping us into the future.”

With this in mind, when McNicol became director she set about reworking the masterplan that the museum had been developing. As well as making sure it was something that would make the museum more relevant, she also felt the scheme she inherited did not adequately address the needs of the buildings and wider estate.

“Sir Ian Blatchford [the director and chief executive of the Science Museum Group] said something at one of our colleague briefings that stuck with me: ‘You know, we have the best railway collection in the world – but we probably have the shabbiest buildings.’ He’s not wrong. On a day like this, when it’s raining, every roof is a challenge. I’ve spent a lot of the past eight years looking at how to improve the estate.”

A more recent addition is a section of a Eurostar train in a replica cross-section of the Channel Tunnel Photography by Orlando Gili
Do the locomotion

The masterplan projects include New Hall at Locomotion, Shildon, County Durham; and in York, Wonderlab: the Bramall Gallery and Central Hall.

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Locomotion is a partnership between the Science Museum Group and Durham County Council, a major supporter of the museum.

The redevelopment involves creating displays that explore the history of the Stockton and Darlington Railway – which was the world’s first commercial passenger railway to use steam locomotives – and its connection to the Locomotion site and railways in north-east England.

New Hall will be the hub of celebrations to mark the 200th anniversary of the opening of the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 2025.

“It’s been a big challenge to get to the point of investing that sort of money for Locomotion,” McNicol says. A key part of the masterplan at York is the redevelopment of Central Hall.

Work is underway and is expected to be finished in 2026. Wonderlab has already been completed, opening in July last year. McNicol is excited about this interactive gallery, which looks and feels very different from the rest of the museum, with its bold, bright colours and a huge artwork sitting in the centre of the space.

Detail of a steam locomotive from the London & South Western Railway Photography by Orlando Gili

“Wonderlab is helping us drive new visitors to the museum, those who haven’t been before or haven’t been for a long time,” she says. “During the first few weeks it was open, I was talking to three generations of one family in there. The grandparents came to the museum the first weekend it opened in 1975 and they later came back with their children and now they were with their grandchildren. They said it’s the best visit they’ve ever had and when I heard that I thought, yes, that’s why we do these things.

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“And it’s not a pastiche of working on the railways. It’s about using the engineering habits of mind to think like an engineer. We worked with around 600 engineers in the railway sector to develop the interactives so that we’ve got something that’s answering to the challenges within the rail sector now and into the future.”

The redevelopment of the Central Hall will vastly improve the visitor experience in York, particularly the entrance to the museum and the wayfinding. The scheme itself is part of the far wider £1bn York Central project, which covers one of the largest brownfield sites in England and will also include housing and offices.

Part of the redevelopment at the museum includes Station Hall, where new displays are being created. The Grade II-listed building is also receiving a £10.5m programme of conservation and repair works, which includes replacing the roof.

“The project at York gives us the opportunity to join the two sides of the museum together. That’s the crowning moment of the masterplan, and means that when people arrive, rather than having to make their way through car parks, there’ll be a square outside the front of the museum that will lead into a beautiful new building with a proper welcome space.

"Visitors will get the chance to decompress and think about what they want to do. They can stand in the middle and see every part of the museum at once.”

Just under £95m will have been spent on the developments at York and Shildon. This includes £74m of transformational change to the museums and £21m of capital maintenance and improvements.

For McNicol, the ability to raise funds is one of the strengths that the National Railway Museum has as part of the Science Museum Group. “If we go back 15-20 years, would we have ever seen a world where £95m would be invested in two northern museums? But being part of this bigger group has given us huge opportunities.”

The Duchess of Hamilton steam engine, built in 1938, graces the Great Hall at the York museum Photography by Orlando Gili

McNicol is also clear about the importance of retaining a distinct identity within the group. “The focus is on how we are unique, how we have different visitor dynamics. Individual funders, both philanthropic and corporates, see a benefit of the group, but they also like the uniqueness of the National Railway Museum. So, for me, we have the best of both worlds.”

McNicol obviously enjoys her work at the National Railway Museum, despite the challenges and responsibilities. To help overcome these challenges she can also draw on her experience of working outside museums – although she has been in the sector for nearly 20 years now.

“I’ve probably not got your classic museum director background. I’m not particularly academic and I don’t have a degree or anything like that. I worked in marketing to start with and then later worked for a venture capitalist. I learned a lot about business, but then decided I wanted to use my skills in a new environment where I could make a difference to a wider public.”

Taking a chance

McNicol decided to move to York in what she describes as a “lightbulb moment” while sitting in a bar by the river with her sister. After relocating, she applied for a role at the National Railway Museum, but soon realised in the interview that she was the wildcard. “I came away from the interview thinking that if they wanted someone who’s either into steam trains or has worked in museums all their life, then I’m not for them, but I was offered the job.”

I’ve probably not got your classic museum director background

She later took on a number of roles at the museum, including becoming the director of people and culture, supporting both the York museum and the wider museum group. She says her commercial experience is vital in her current role, as is her understanding of staffing issues, including the need to diversify the workforce.

“When I was people and culture director, one of the things I did was remove the need for academic qualifications from our application process. I think, historically, there has been a bit of snobbery about who should work in museums. In my senior team alone, there are three people who’ve come to work here and have relocated to York, and none of them comes from standard museum backgrounds. They came because what they saw happening here is really exciting and they wanted to be part of that.”

The York and Shildon redevelopments are not only exciting, but it looks as if they will create two sustainable and efficient museums that are ready to face the future with confidence. If only we could say the same about our national railway network.

National Railway Museum

The National Railway Museum in York has the largest collection of railway objects in the world and prior to Covid-19, attracted more than 750,000 visitors a year. The collection includes over 260 locomotives and rolling stock, 600 coins and medals as well as railway uniforms and costumes, equipment, documents, records, artwork and photographs. In fact, the railway museum’s art collection comprises more than 11,000 posters, 2,300 prints and drawings, 1,000 paintings, and 1.75 million photographs.

The National Railway Museum is part of the Science Museum Group, along with the Science Museum in London, the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester, the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford and Locomotion in Shildon, County Durham.

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