A three-dimensional archive

I recently visited the museum of the Vintage Carriages Trust, at Ingrow West station on the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway in West Yorkshire. The Trust is dedicated to the restoration of old railway carriages to their original condition; some of them when restored may then occasionally run on the railway.

It occurred to me that the collection of carriages constitutes a three-dimensional archive. By showing us not only how old carriages looked but presenting that look in immaculate condition and letting us sit in some of the compartments, as they do, they allow us to get a rather different sense of what travelling in those carriages was actually like than an old photograph gives. Fascinating and indispensable as old photographs are, their technical qualities emphasise the difference of past ages from our own. To sit in one of these carriages emphasises our common humanity: we can get at least a sense of the experience of the original passengers.

I sat in Great Northern Railway no. 589, taking in the tongue and groove panelling, the paint and varnish, the seat moquettes and, in first class, the PVC which has replaced leather, but in the original buttoned design. In an old Metropolitan Railway carriage I took in the luggage racks of wrought iron and plaited string, the wartime posters in Edward Johnston’s celebrated typeface and the engraving on the inside door handles, “Live in Metroland”. But my favourite was one of Oliver Bulleid’s main line carriages for British Railways Southern Region of 1950 with its veneer, plain electric light bulbs, circular mirrors (a very Bulleid touch), chrome fittings and red seat moquette – a replacement, but woven to the original pattern. The appeal of this was that it is only just out of reach of my memory – its working life extended into my own lifetime by a few years but I never travelled on one of its type. So it was enough like carriages I do remember to be familiar, but much was also different. I had the endlessly tantalising sense of drawing on memory and history and trying to reconcile them; and though I made progress towards it I could not quite, and never will quite, “get the feeling”. This is the same sensation I get from examining archives of the more conventional kind, and it is why I constantly return to them.

Now the VCT’s volunteer staff shy away from the idea that they are running an archive; they are clear that it is a museum. Their aim is to attract people who have come for a day out on the railway who are naturally interested in steam engines but have probably never thought about carriages, and arouse in them an interest in carriages. But where do we draw boundaries? I was once shown Samuel Butler’s sheep brand (from his time as a farmer in New Zealand) – in a library, that of St John’s College Cambridge. On the other hand a librarian once suggested to me that an archive holds documents produced for the private use of an organisation: a library is the proper repository only for items which have been published or disseminated, even if on a small scale such as a parish magazine. A railway carriage, intended for public use, obviously was in a sense disseminated, but when the VCT restores a carriage to show how it looked, or how it was made to look, it is a matrix of archival detail on this subject which produces the total effect.

This compares with period-instrument orchestras. These instruments naturally produced the sound of their own era but have survived as tokens of the history of music and of the development of each instrument. This is a kind of archive. But these instruments today also give us, we could well say, oral testimony of the sounds of the past by being used for performance. This is another kind of archive. Period instrument performance has now reached the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This time is contiguous with our own: by then keys had replaced holes and valves had replaced crooks, even if flutes were still of wood and metal strings had not yet replaced gut. So the sound is familiar but not quite our own and is a product of the minutiae of technique and of sound. It is the “archive” which has given us the totality of the effect.


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