Model railroading at museums

Is model railroading an art, or is it a craft? Or is it just a hobby, as most people believe? Surely some would admit that it’s not only a hobby but also a craft, and perhaps there’s someone somewhere who thinks it’s an art.

If it’s an art, you should see it in museums, right? Well, I almost saw it in a museum today — and if it weren’t for the storm, I would have. But there was no way I was going to drive to Lexington at midday today. Our excellent National Heritage Museum was sponsoring an unfortunately timed model railroad exhibit sponsored by the HUB Division of the National Model Railroad Association. But I missed it.

Of course I could console myself by assuming that it probably wasn’t very good anyway. There’s at least some evidence to support this sour-grapes theory: as I reported last year, I was disappointed by their 2006 show in Marlborough. But my complaint about that one was that it was too commercial, and it seemed likely that one at the National Heritage Museum wouldn’t be. Oh, well.

But I’ve been to three other model railroad shows this year that were (at least partially) successful from my point of view. One showed model railroading as a hobby, one as a craft, and one as an art. Let’s start with the hobby first. Greenberg’s Train and Toy Show is a 30-year-old tradition that ropes in the whole family by not limiting themselves to model railroads (as you can tell from the name). This was my first visit — on November 18 in Wilmington, MA — and I was pleasantly surprised. Although there was a lot of junk, and too many tables were selling the same merchandise, there were also several high-quality layouts and a few choice vendors. It was definitely worth going to, as long as I was willing to invest a few hours to sort the wheat from the chaff.

Next comes the craft. The New England Prototype Modelers Meet — on June 3 in Collinsville, CT — was very impressive, but unfortunately over my head. No problem with chaff here! Just the opposite: I was clearly an amateur among professionals. There was amazing attention to detail, as you can see from the photo gallery. I can hold out this level of craft as an ideal, but I’ll never come close to it.

Finally, model railroading as art. The DeCordova Museum in Lincoln is hosting an elaborate exhibit called Trainscape, in which 12 artists created original works of art, all interacting with and linked by a fully functioning model railroad that passes through them:

Trainscape addresses a vital issue in the art of the early twenty-first century. Currently, many artists are actively engaged in the creation of imaginary worlds, not only with sculpture and installations, but also with painting, drawing, and photography. This impulse reflects philosophical ruminations about alternate realities, escape from the current world situation, and the use of place as an emotionally expressive device. A major theme within this exploration of parallel universes is a wide expansion of the idea of landscape sculpture (as opposed to the far more familiar “landscape painting”). Trainscape presents many alternative worlds, united only by the physical — and often conceptual — presence of the trains that travel throughout the exhibition.

The use of a miniature railroad enables DeCordova Museum to effectively present twelve separate works of contemporary installation art in a limited space, and to allow these works to be considered both separately and in juxtaposition. The miniature is also the perceptual cousin to the colossal. Tiny objects and images demand close examination, so that they fill one’s optical field in much the same way as very large visual phenomena. This close looking at small things allows for deep mental immersion as well. Trainscape thus provides enveloping journeys to cities, mountains, deserts, technological landscapes, and places of pure imagination.

Certainly their words, not mine, and surely not the way most of us think of model railroading, but it dramatically emphasizes the idea of miniature worlds and alternative representations. It’s there only through January 18, so be sure to go soon!

Categories: Model Railroading