Two weeks ago, on the way back from visiting the second oldest building in England (the oldest is this, if you're interested), I nearly crashed the car when I saw a sign that read "Railway Museum". I don't have any great interest in trains, but I am endlessly fascinated by railway enthusiasts. I am a trainspotter spotter.
Having said that, I think that trainspotters and railway enthusiasts are quite different creatures. Trainspotting, at its purest, has been cited as a classic sympton of Asperger's Syndrome - an obsession with collecting data that has no meaning beyond its own terms of reference. The railway enthusiast, on the other hand, is driven by nostalgia: a deep-seated longing to leave the messy, complex and disappointing present for an idyllic, model railway vision of society, where everything connects, runs on time and makes sense.
I can relate to that.
I had never heard of the Mangapps Railway Museum at Burnham-on-Crouch. Given that this was a school half-term holiday with reasonably mild weather, I expected to see a few families ambling around the exhibits, but as I reached the end of a long dirt track, it was clear that the car park was completely empty.
No families. Not even those strange, middle-aged men with moustaches and very expensive SLR cameras that tend to proliferate in these sorts of places.
Why was I the only visitor?
The museum's website says that it is "believed" to have the largest signalling collection on public display in Britain. Even on a quiet Friday afternoon in late October, there must be enough signalling fans out there to provide a steady stream of visitors. Perhaps the museum's fairly remote location, on the Dengie peninsula, was an obstacle.
In addition to a fine collection of signals, the museum had some splendid signs:
There were also some intriguing machines like this one, which helped to ensure that the trains all ran to the timetable:
I can see the attraction of displays like these. They represent a world of fixed values and certainties. Gradients, distances between stations and capacities of branch lines are all constants. In this world, there are no incompetent private contractors or draconian branch line closures, whilst private cars are for the sole use of the very wealthy and the emergency services.
Was the world ever like this poster?
I'm very tempted to ask to see my local Station Master (although in Lewes I wouldn't be entirely surprised if an immaculately-dressed, rather rotund man with mutton chop sideburns and a gleaming pocket watch suddenly emerged from a hidden door).
With no "railfans" to spot, my visit seemed rather pointless. But I perked up when I saw this old London Underground Northern Line carriage:
I love being able to walk around a train carriage that must have carried hundreds of thousands of commuters over several decades of use and relish every detail, from the upholstery of the seats to the advertisements above them.
For me, the real attraction of any museum is the social history. A few years ago I visited the National Railway Museum in York and whilst I could coldly admire the enginering achievements of the various locomotives, the things that really excited me were the Royal Trains through the ages: the opulence of Queen Victoria's carriage, the Art Deco fittings of George VI's and the relative austerity of Elizabeth II's.
This museum was too functional for my tastes and I would have liked to have seen more social history. Parts of the museum felt like a collection of objects thrown together, rather than a curated display with any narrative, and I would imagine that even in the railway community, there aren't that many people interested in signals and signalling devices.
Of course, I could be wrong.
In my ideal railway museum, there would be more of the everyday objects that passengers took for granted until they suddenly disappeared: the Nestle chocolate dispensers, the make-your-own record booths, the platform-ticket machines and the leather window straps of carriages like this one:
Should museums preach to the converted or try and engage the uninterested? The best should be able to do both, presenting displays that are accessible but not dumbed-down.
But I'm not complaining. After having the second oldest building to myself in the morning, I went on to enjoy being the sole occupant of a museum. I felt like an aristocrat, relishing the privilege of a private viewing. Do I want these places to get their act together and attract more visitors?