By Otto M. Vondrak/photos as noted
Have you ever heard the story about the museum that had George Washington’s axe in their collection? Of course, the handle had been replaced twice and the head once, but it was still George Washington’s axe, right? This old joke resonates with many in the preservation world as we work hard to keep our vintage collections intact for future generations to enjoy. Most of the stuff we are taking care of in our colletions is already old and worn out by most definitions when we get it. The item can be an old timetable, a retired conductor’s uniform, or a 100 year old Pullman car. What happens when an artifact has deteriorated to the point where it is no longer appropriate for public display or regular use? Sometimes the answers are not readily apparent, and all railroad restoration and conservation efforts are not the same.
The easiest path to preservation is to take non-intervening “prevenative measures” to keep items from deteriorating any further. Not everything in your collection needs to be in “showroom condition” with gleaming paint and polished brass. In fact, in some cases it is the wear and tear from decades of use that makes an artifact most interesting. As long as the item can be safely handled or put on public display without threat of further damage or deterioration, you’re likely better off leaving things the way they are. According to published guidelines followed by many museum organizations, the basic idea of preservation is to prolong the life of an object. This might mean keeping certain items in storage or in an archive out of public view. It could be as simple as slipping that old timetable into an archival sleeve, placing that old conductor’s uniform into dry storage, or moving that old Pullman car indoors. Should it be determined that prevenative measures alone are not helping, there are several courses of action to follow. The following definitions come from the National Park Service’s Museum Handbook published in 2012 (many parts of which are available online).
Conservation: This is the deliberate alteration of an object’s physical properties in an effort to extend its longevity. The goal of any kind of conservation is to minimize the possibility of compromising the object’s historical or cultural significance, or causing more deterioration in the future. Yet, even repairs or alterations made by professional conservators could potentially cause more harm than good as techniques a continually evolving and improving. For instance, how many old books and documents have you encountered over the years that were “repaired” using cellophane “library tape” that has marred the surfaces with yellowed glue shiny plastic strips? In many cases doing nothing at all can be the best course of action to minimize accidental damage.
Stabilization: This level of conservation is itended to either slow down or stop the deterioration of a particular item, and is considered to have the least impact on its original integrity. This course of action might also be considered when an item is too fragile to repair, or if sufficient funds or restoration techniques are not yet available to your organization. At my museum, we recently applied a plastic “cocoon” like you would find on a winterized boat to our Lackawanna coach that suffered a partial roof collapse. Right now, we don’t have the resources or manpower to make repairs. Taking this important step to stabilize the car will help keep the damage from getting worse and buy us some time while we figure out what to do next.
The passage of time is rarely kind to wooden construction like this former Great Northern caboose preserved at the Medford Railroad Park by the Southern Oregon Chapter NRHS. Built in 1941 as caboose X202, it became Burlington Northern 11205 in 1970. The car was retired in 1972 and passed to private ownership before it was acquired by the chapter and moved to the railroad park in 1993. Largely intact, the car has since been repainted to help stabilize its condition and prepare it for a future restoration. Photo by Tony Johnson
Restoration: Any attempts at restoration include the introduction of non-original materials in an attempt to return an object to an earlier state. In the course of restoration, the original character of the object should not be changed. The result of the restoration should benefit future research or exhibit purposes. For example, we have an a steel transfer caboose that our museum acquired from Conrail in 1996. It had been involved in a minor accident before coming to our museum, and our volunteers worked hard to repair the damge to the body. Since the caboose was going to need new paint anyway, it was decided to backdate the car to its as-built 1969 appearance inside and out. A little research led us to the correct paint formula codes and in 2002 caboose 18526 once again wore a fresh coat of Penn Central “Deepwater Green.”
Reproductions: In some cases, either the original no longer exists, or the original is too fragile to display or exhibit. A good reproduction can be used as part of an exhibit while a fragile original is kept out of harm’s way. In the railway preservation world, sometimes a similar piece of equipment is painted and lettered for another railroad to provide an example for visitors to enjoy. For instance, CSX donated former Clinchfield F7 no. 800 to the Chesapeake & Ohio Historical Society, which in turn had the locomotive beautifully repainted to represent one of C&O’s passenger units. Carrying a number one higher than the last such unit on C&O’s roster, the 8016 can be found on the point of many Potomac Eagle Scenic Railroad passenger trains operated out of Romney, W.Va. As long as you are clear to your visitors that they are viewing a reproduction (while acknowledging the original heritage), there is no harm done.
The frame and body of Tionesta Valley Railroad caboose #111 had suffered so much deterioration that Connecticut Antiue Machinery Association volunteers constructed a new frame using parts from the original one for patterns. Extensive reconstruction was required to return this car to operation.
As we mentioned before, preservation touches every part of an organization’s collection, not just trains. For instance, let’s say you have several boxes of color slides in your collection. If stored properly, the slides should last for years to come, even if no further action is taken. In this situation, most likely the slides would be left in storage, and only pulled out on occasion only if someone knew their location and contents, but left alone they would be relatively safe from harm. If the slides are of particular local interest, a step towards preservation would be to have the slides removed from their boxes, catalogued, and placed in archival sleeves and binders for easy reference. An even better solution might be to have the collection digitzed (scanned) and placed into an online archive as some photo emulsions will tend to fade and shift over time. But what if the slides are dirty or otherwise damaged? Now you risk taking steps which could possibly accelerate the deterioration while trying to save the items in question. Such are the dilemas of historical preservation.
Remember George Washington’s axe? It’s a great metaphor to describe the cautious steps taken when planning any kind of rebuilding or restoration project. For instance, is it more important to the visitor experience for the object to function as intended, or to preserve the original material? A caboose that is being refurbished for static display will have different considerations than one that is expected to meet all safety requirements and operate on a regular basis.
Before embarking on any kind of preservation activity, several questions need to be answered first. What makes the object in question of historic and cultural interest to your organization? Why is any kind of action needed in the first place? What will be the scope of the project? What is the intended use once the project is complete? How will the object be stored, displayed, or operated once complete? Answering these questions will help your organization put together a more complete plan for fundraising and manpower.
Don’t forget that other museums and historical societies can be great resources as well. Many have been down this same path before and can offer valuable advice. It’s always important to have frank, detailed conversations with the people who are performing your restoration, whether they are volunteers or paid professionals, so that the goals and intent of the project are clear. Detailed written estimates, schedules, and reports will help remove any confusion as work progresses from stage to stage. Not only will this result in a finished product everyone can be proud of, but it will also help keep costs under control.
Documentation during any restoration project is always important. Taking “before” and “after” pictures are just as important as the process itself. The goal is to add or alter the original object as little as possible, and detailed documentation will help serve as a permanent record of anything that was added or taken away. Careful records will help someone else in the future determine how best to continue preservation efforts, especially if new methods or techniques have been developed. We have one caboose in our collection that has been rebuilt twice over the last 20 years, and the materials and process used were different each time. Perhaps the project will take on a different scope 20 years from now.
Evaluate your goals before you embark upon costly restoration projects that can spiral out of control. Careful, cautious steps are your key to success. Whether your collection has one car or a hundred, it is important to take steps today to make sure that what you worked so hard to save is still around for the future.
Associate editor Otto M. Vondrak is a trustee of the Rochester & Genesee Valley Railroad Museum in Rochester, N.Y., and has been an active volunteer with many historic preservation groups throughout the northeast.