Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Humanizing Railway History

Connecting history to modern lives is a challenge for museums.  Museum interpreters carefully look for ways to engage and interact with visitors' wide-range of interests, backgrounds and cultures. For some it’s the love of railroads and machinery that draws them here, especially when they can “talk train” with knowledgeable people. Then there are others (the majority of visitors) who are looking for a family experience, and the Museum is simply a “neat place to take an old-fashioned train excursion and see the top of Snoqualmie Falls with the kids.”  And others fall between these two groups. So how does the Museum address all of the varied interests and ages?
One common denominator lies in the “humanization” of history. All of us can relate to being a real person. And when that side of railway history is presented, it leads to learning fun without knowing that learning is happening! Recent exhibits include historic photos with people in them.  What the people of the past wore, their expressions, their stance all let visitors connect to the fact that these were real people who lived the railroading experience in one way or another. Giving visitors something they’re familiar with, even though different, allows them to make a connection to the past while making comparisons with their current lives.  The new Northern Pacific Railway Stewardess exhibit, along with firsthand looks inside the Chapel Car and Bunk car offer a glimpse of how railroading isn’t just about the technology, but about real people and how the railroad impacted their lives.
Periodically, we bring real humans into the humanization experience through living history programs where visitors speak with, listen to, watch and engage re-enactors portraying passengers of earlier times. For instance, a living history piece has been added during School train.  Students are greeted by an actor in Edwardian-era clothing. During the presentation, they learn about the passengers of that era – their clothing, luggage and “quiet” toys that children riding the trains may have had. A highlight is dressing a girl and boy from each class in period clothing. Afterwards, the students are invited to handle the clothing and try the historic toys themselves. When the light goes on about how early 20th century train travel is different from their modern lives, it’s magical.  They never considered how those everyday items tied into railroad history! And now those simple ordinary items opened up a new understanding of how the railroad changed everything.
All of these techniques engage Northwest Railway Museum visitors in different ways to keep the history alive, but none of these are possible without the Museum’s members and donors who allow funding of new programs and exhibits to occur along with running and restoring the artifacts. So as we move closer to the Seattle Foundation’s GiveBIG date on Tuesday May 3, please consider scheduling your GiveBIG donation to ensure more programming growth at the Northwest Railway! Remember, every little bit helps. And if you’re curious to see some of this firsthand, ride the May 1, 11 am train for the Groundbreaking of the Railway Education Center and you never know who you might run into on the train…

-Guest blog by Marketing Manager Peggy Barchi

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