Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Each of Our Visitors Is Our Student, and Each of Us Is Their Teacher

This is an article I wrote for the Orange Empire Railway Museum's Gazette, their monthly newsletter, while I was in residence there last spring as a full-time volunteer.  It was an effort to help them along the road from being a club to being a museum.  I am a member.  I have added a few comments of clarification in square brackets and italics.

That is what we promised when we accepted Section 501(c)(3) non-profit status five decades ago. The people allowed our donors to receive a tax deduction (our life blood) and gave us a few other benefits, such as no property taxes and reduced postage on Gazette mailings. In return we committed to being a teaching institution. Our artifacts of Southern California railway heritage became the people’s and we promised to teach them about that heritage. Ever since the people bestowed upon us our non-profit status, we have been the custodians of this collection for the public’s benefit and we have worked hard to take care of it, but how are we doing in our commitment to teach them about it?

A visitor spends a few hours here. Does he or she leave realizing we have an operating signal system? Did the visitor learn anything about it? Yes, the signal garden could be a teaching tool, but falls short. So is our signaling system merely a hobby of a few guys with no larger value to society?

If a visitor is not at least 60, he or she could not remember streetcars running in a Los Angeles street. When I’m in the Ballash Carhouse (1), I get questions about the buses [it's a barn full of Los Angeles street cars and work cars]. When our guests leave here can they picture a streetcar running down a street connected to a 600V DC overhead wire? If they can’t, we have let them down.

When visitors stand next to our Southern Pacific “U-Boat” U25B [General Electric diesel engine] to have their picture taken is a member explaining the basics of a diesel-electric locomotive to them? They probably know trucks have diesel engines, that electricity comes from a wall plug, and that a motor runs their kitchen mixer. Who is explaining that they are standing in front of all that?

We have the instructional tools in our magnificent collection. We operate trains and do some teaching during the ride, we have a weekday docents program, we have a charter program, and we have a web site; but show and (a little) tell is only one level of teaching.

We will have a library and, of course, preservation of our achieves is extremely important.  But the typical visitors walking through the front gate will not (thank God) spend an hour digging through our old documents to teach history to themselves.

Today, it is far more necessary to educate the public about rail transportation. Fifty years ago, essentially everybody who came through our gate had ridden a train, a streetcar, and/or an interurban. The opposite is true now and most of our guests have never ridden on these modes of transportation. Thus the opportunity we have to teach, the knowledge gap we have to fill, and the possibility to spread our love for railway artifacts is nearly infinite.

I never quote scripture but one line from Luke keeps going around in my head as I write this. “No one, when he has lit a lamp, puts it in a cellar or under a basket, but on a stand, that those who come in may see the light.”

We have hundreds, maybe a thousand lamps under baskets. I have pointed out only three — the signaling system, streetcar vs. bus, and the operation of a diesel locomotive. How many of our visitors are taught that we run on three track gauges and the historical reasons why? How many leave knowing what a track gauge is? We all can add many things to this under-the-basket list, but Randy [the newsletter editor] has only so much room in the Gazette... Well, one more, my favorite hidden artifact, the puzzle switch, so well hidden under its basket that many members don’t know what an interesting piece of simple engineering it is.

If every volunteer took the time to turn over just one basket, this place would meet its commitment. It comes of no surprise that good teaching is difficult, but it is extremely rewarding. Some explanations may require interactive displays. And yes, I know, it is more fun to operate trains, to put that final touch of paint on a PCC, or to work on the dream of Emma Nevada [a beautiful 3-foot gauge steam engine] running again. But all that constitutes only the beginning of our commitment to educate. To paraphrase a song: “These little lights of ours, we need to let them shine. Let them shine all the time. Make them shine.”

A much smaller railway museum in Snoqualmie, Washington has taken its teaching obligation quite seriously. A few years ago they hired a full-time educator. She has implemented an excellent set of teaching programs and is well on her way to becoming a very good curator. She is turning over their baskets.

As a member I helped her with an important one last summer. I put a railing in the cab of their articulated logging steam engine so visitors could have access instead of looking through a cab window. She also labeled all major components inside and out. I think you ought to clone her then each give her significant help turning over a basket of your choice.

As I complete my third winter here in the desert with you, I want to sincerely thank you. I have had the opportunity to look under your baskets. You have so much to teach the next generations, as you promised to when they bought in half a century ago. Good luck teaching the details of the contribution each of your artifacts made to the development of Southern California. Teaching is rewarding. You impart a little of yourself, your knowledge and love of trains, into your students.

I’ve been on the west coast for four years. Long enough! Trains and museums on the east coast call. But my intent is to come back some winter, if you’ll have me.

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