Railways and Commemoration: Anniversaries, Commemorative Cultures and the Making of Railway History

Lead Research Organisation: University of York
Department Name: History


This project investigates a key aspect of the public culture of railways: the commemorative marking of anniversaries. In doing so, it will shed light both on the building and maintenance of corporate and business identities in the railway sector, and on the ways in which narratives of railway history have been constructed over time, and will also integrate the analysis of railway commemorative cultures with the broader study of commemoration as a salient feature of modern societies.

Most work on anniversary commemoration has focused on political anniversaries, war commemoration, or the celebration of cultural figures: it has been largely concerned with commemoration at the level of the state and of national society. Far less work has been done on corporate or institutional commemorative practices, yet these supply the context for a great deal of the commemorative activity that occurs in modern societies. Though important research has been done on commemoration in the fields of science and technology, work in business history and organization studies has generated only a handful of studies dealing with how businesses or organizations evoke, interpret and commemorate the corporate past.

Railways offer an outstanding opportunity for this kind of study. Railways have long and varied commemorative traditions, whose persistence across two centuries of technological and organizational change makes them an admirable case study of continuities and adaptations in commemorative practice. The centrality of railways to the shaping of modern societies also means that railway commemorative practices intersect repeatedly with the articulation of a wide range of other identities (local, national and international) and discourses (of progress, technology, business, travel, professionalism, etc.)

The key focus of the project is railway anniversary commemoration in Britain. Anniversary events - whether focused on key dates in the history of particular companies/lines, or famous locomotives, or the lives of iconic engineers and entrepreneurs - have been an essential feature of the historical culture of railways since the mid-nineteenth century. Through anniversary commemoration, railway companies affirmed and celebrated their own identity, and staked a claim to public recognition of their contribution to progress and national development. Commemorative events were significant national and local occasions, involving complex interactions both within the railway community (between employers, workers and unions) and between that community and other interests, and generating a rich diversity of commemorative forms - speeches, pageants, exhibitions, dinners, religious services, memorials, medallions, souvenir programmes, commemorative volumes, poems and visual imagery. Anniversary events are a fascinating prism through which to view the social dynamics of the commemorative process, and the multifaceted involvement of railways in modern society.

The NRM's holdings offer an unrivalled basis for research in this area. Drawing on these holdings, on materials in other archives (National Archives, British Library, local libraries and archives), and on the press, the project will explore the following questions: How have the forms of railway anniversary commemoration varied and evolved over time? How has this commemoration constructed and defined corporate, group and institutional identities? How have commemorative events shaped and articulated different narrative understandings of railway history, and of its relationship to local, national and transnational histories? How can research into anniversary commemorations generate fresh and creative approaches to objects and to their deployment in museum displays? How can this research be used to prompt debate and creative thinking about the functions of commemoration in today's society, and about the role of museums like the NRM in relation to these functions?


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Description I have given four public talks about my research since 2017 for the BBC History Weekend and for talks at the National Railway Museum. My research will also continues to contribute to the master plan redesign of the National Railway Museum.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Education,Environment,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections,Transport
Impact Types Cultural,Societal