Westward Ho!: My REP at the National Railway Museum

I’m glad that I took the time to follow my personal passion for an organisation; the REP was a chance to spend time in one of my favourite cities and organisations.

Cait Scott reflects on an enjoyable Researcher Employability Project at the National Railway Museum, and gives some insight into how to plan a successful, exciting, REP.

Cait Scott

Department of Archaeology

University of Sheffield




After meeting Dr Oli Betts at the WRoCAH Colloquium 2, I knew that I wanted to spend a month at National Railway Museum in York. My PhD considers how archaeology could enhance understanding of historic properties for a public audience; Oli’s enthusiasm for my research and its connections to the NRM was infectious. As a CDP student, I have got to know the curatorial team at English Heritage, but this was an opportunity to learn more about how research and curation happens in a national museum. I was also looking for a REP with a partner that was prepared for a WRoCAH student and that didn’t involve too much travel, taking advantage of having a great museum on my doorstep.

The National Railway Museum has vast collections not just of trains but of documents, photographs, and objects relating to the history of railways across Britain and the wider world. I was immediately embedded in these collections, producing original research about railways and heritage tourism in the early-20th century. This was originally considering how rail networks affected visits to country houses, but I followed the collections to a different path, exploring how the Great Western Railway company shaped the development of seaside tourism to Cornwall and Devon. This was an exciting and diverse story encompassing class dynamics, perceptions of the ‘other’, health and the body, and the aesthetics of public relations. I then designed a mock exhibition called ‘Westward Ho!’ using this research, which I pitched to the curatorial team at the end of my project.

With Dr Betts after our exhibition pitches

At the NRM there is a well-established tradition of hosting visiting researchers, and staff were keen to discuss my ideas, which fit well with curatorial themes around the social history of travel. For someone who both was a fan of the museum from a young age and unashamedly fascinated by trains, it was a great experience to collaborate with experts in all different areas. I presented my ideas for a creative exhibition around new research, a process which the NRM team often lacks the time and resources to pursue. It was also an exciting time to be at the museum as the team were preparing for Vision 2025, a complete redesign of the permanent exhibition space. Attending curatorial meetings, I also understood for the first time just how complex the management and care of large collection objects like trains can be, with exhibition strategies shaped by where each engine or carriage sits within the museum.

My exhibition’s ‘active words’, exploring what the exhibition should feel like to visitors

Researching for ‘Westward Ho!’ was a new challenge for me, exploring different types of collections including posters, guidebooks, and photography that are very much outside of an archaeologist’s comfort zone! I developed a personal interest in the history of the heritage industry, considering how railways and transport networks have shaped both broad cultural trends and individual stories. This was first opportunity to explore the whole process of exhibition curation and design, planning how to target a specific museum audience and craft an interesting yet approachable narrative from disparate research. I considered different aspects including visitor experience, conservation challenges, loan processes, even health and safety. I was very lucky as my REP coincided with another WRoCAH student, Joel Baker, who was crafting a similar mock exhibition for his Knowledge Exchange Project with the museum. This meant we could share ideas and experience the process of turning our research into public engagement together

A 1937 publicity poster commissioned by GWR which I used in my exhibition pitch (NRM collection 1986-8828)

It was also an exciting time to be in the NRM; we saw Stephenson’s Rocket in a new exhibition and learned all about the Vision 2025 redesign.

 Seeing Stephenson’s Rocket up-close in the Brass, Steel and Fire exhibition

As a CDP student, it is very easy to embed yourself within your partner organisation, yet the REP is a chance to see a different kind of working structure and environment. My advice is to integrate yourself as much as you can with your REP partner; meet different members of staff, attend meetings and impromptu coffees, and asks lots of questions. I’m also glad that I took the time to follow my personal passion for an organisation; the REP was a chance to spend time in one of my favourite cities and organisations, and Joel and I are even scoping out some future collaboration. With the current situation disrupting museums across the world, I think any opportunity to be collaborative and creative is a benefit to the student and hopefully to the museum sector as well.

Me and Joel on our last day in NRM’s Great Hall