Discover what goes on beyond our exhibition floors and past the security doors with our series of 24 podcast episodes.
Hop aboard the Museum Revealed Podcast Express to the Queensland Museum Network’s Ipswich campus: The Workshops Rail Museum. Somewhere amongst the network’s biggest and heaviest collection items you’ll find Curator, Rob Shiels. Like the museum itself, Rob isn’t just about trains, so come along for the ride… you never know where he might take us!
Rob has worked at The Workshops Rail Museum since 2006 in a number of different roles; visitor services, public programs and since 2011 collection management. Since becoming the Assistant Collection Manager at The Workshops Rail Museum Rob has helped deliver a number of large object moves including; locomotives, buses, cars, wagons and carriages, generators, tanks, rail motors and high voltage electrical material. Rob is also heavily involved with developing and delivering exhibitions.
KH: Thanks for joining us on the Museum Reveal podcast, this episode was recorded using Skype, so you may hear a bit of background noise, which we like to call atmosphere. We hope you enjoy this episode, too. So let’s get started.
LC: op aboard the museum revealed podcast express to the Queensland Museum Network’s Ipswich campus. The Workshops Rail Museum. Somewhere amongst the networks, the biggest and heaviest collection items you’ll find curator Rob Shiels (RS), like the museum itself, Rob, isn’t just about trains. So come along for the ride. You never know where he might take you and me, Laura Cantrell, museum graphic designer and sometimes podcast host. Rob, you’ve had a variety of roles at The Workshops Rail Museum. Can you tell us a little bit about these roles?
RS: Well, I started in 2006 as a Visitor Services Officer, so that was just before that year’s Thomas event. I was a VSO or Visitor Services Officer for a few years and had a few Thomases under my belt. Then I started working with the display team and I helped install and build a lot of the school holiday programs like Wizards and Witches, Circus Train, the Great Train Robbery. And then I was the Education Officer for a little while, so I used to work with all the school groups. I led the Nippers Play and Learn sessions for a few years and then I became the Assistant Collection Manager in 2010. I did that for five years, six years. Then I became the Collection Manager and then recently I’ve become the Curator. So I guess if there’s a job out there, there’s a good chance of help.
LC: Can you explain to us what is the difference between a Collection Manager and a Curator?
RS: Well, I guess ultimately the Collection Manager’s main focus is caring for the collection, organising how the objects move, how we keep track of what we’re doing with the object and a Curator’s main focus is researching and learning about that object and how it was used and why it was created. So in an exhibition sense, usually the Curator might pick the object, do some research on it, write a label for it. And a Collection Manager will work out how to move the objects in the collection store and how to install it into the display case, along with the help of the conservators.
LC: Well, I know that you do work with a lot of objects and content about rail in Queensland. Personally, what stories and objects do you find the most interesting?
RS: I really am quite fascinated about the social side of life in the railway. So like a lot of large companies and industrial sites, there were a lot of workers were in bands like brass bands. Workers were in sporting clubs and social clubs and objects associated with that part of being a railway worker is what I’m more interested in. At The Workshops Rail Museum we’re lucky enough to have a lot of sport related objects like old trophies, sporting blazers. So in recent years I’ve done a lot of work on them and researching old cricket competitions, rugby league competitions, soccer competitions and things like that. So I find that really interesting.
LC: And I know that you have to digitise a lot of photographs as part of your job. Have you come across any surprising or interesting images?
RS: Well, what I see yeah, surprising, funny, clever images all the time. But when we locked down last year and a lot of us had to start working from home, I started work on a photographic collection that we’d been donated a few years before. And it was actually by a husband and wife team who were architects and particularly heritage architects. And they’d been asked by Queensland Rail to go around the state and document a lot of the railway stations and waiting sheds in the late 90s and early 2000s. So one of the projects I did was I digitised that whole collection during the lockdown and that was about two and a half thousand images. And it was it was really fascinating because most of those images are about twenty, twenty five years old. And it’s a real snapshot of what the railway in Queensland was like at the turn of the 21st century. And it’s you know, we all know how much the world’s changed in 100 years. But looking at some of those photos about lines out west in Queensland, I can’t imagine a lot had changed in that time. So it was a really, really good project and it was a really positive thing to do during, you know, not really a great time, but without without having the time of that lockdown. I probably still wouldn’t have gotten onto working with those photos because it was such a large project that I would never have been able to to spare the time to really sink my teeth into it. So, yeah, it’s a really good project to start and finish.
LC: Do you think at some point members of the general public will be able to see those photos somehow?
RS: Yeah, I’m actually having a meeting tomorrow. We’re going to think about how we can get them up online and host them in the future.
LC: Yeah, fantastic. Now, I know one of the other interesting things you’ve got in the collection is model trains with an interesting background. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
RS: Yeah. In 2015, we were donated a collection of 11 and a half thousand model trains, and the collection was owned by one man. His name is Mr. Nick Marsden, and he was from Wollongong in New South Wales. And he was a lifelong model railway aficionado. And he was a very successful man in his professional career. And he was quite well-off. As he got older, he acquired a significant amount of model trains and he even had a second house built on his property just to house his collection of model trains. We don’t have the whole collection; the University of Wollongong, took many, many thousands as well. But we’ve got the vast majority, I think.
LC: So it sounds like there was a fair few to share around.
RS: Yeah, definitely. Definitely. So we’ve been cataloguing that for about six years and we’re maybe two and a half to three thousand individual models in. So, you know, in about 20 years, I’ll I’ll have it all finished.
LC: Well, moving from some of our smallest objects to our biggest, I know that you’ve been involved in moving some incredibly heavy collection objects. What’s been the heaviest you’ve had to move and what techniques do you use to move them?
RS: Mainly with locomotives. We would lift them with two franna cranes. So that’s just articulated centre crane that you might see driving on the highway next to you. Two 30 ton franna cranes. By far, the most difficult lift I’ve ever been involved in was the first time Mephisto came out to the workshops. That involved driving the tank from the north side of Brisbane to Ipswich. And then we lifted the tank off a truck with two franna cranes onto an old flatbed railway wagon. And then we had to push it inside one of the old buildings that Ipswich Railway Workshops behind where our museum is. And we had less than an inch play on either side of the door so that we just snuck it in height wise and width wise, we just made it. And then once we got it inside the building, the Queensland Rail crane operators came in and they used the cranes that were inside the building and they were there. They were installed in 1902 and they lifted up the tank off the flatbed wagon. So that was the real easy part. Once it was inside the building that was pretty simple, but it was you know, it was pretty nerve wracking there for, you know, a little while.
LC: Yeah. It sounds like quite an undertaking. Now The Workshops Rail Museum has a massive 90 square metre model depicting scenes from Queensland’s extensive rail network. Do you have a favourite part people should look out for when they visit?
RS: Yeah, I think the port scene is really well done and on the other side of the model from that, I think the the Western Queensland town seems quite good, too.
LC: Rob, can you tell me why our Ipswich campus is called The Workshops Rail Museum. Could you tell us the history behind it?
RS: Well, it’s been the Ipswich Railway Workshops since the 1880s. So the original Ipswich railway workshops were built right on the edge of the Bremer River, where the River Link shopping centre is today in Ipswich. And as the railways grew and developed, a new workshop site had to be created. So they gradually moved the workshops to where we are today. And it’s still a railway workshops. It’s always been the Ipswich Railway Workshop. So when the museum was created in 2002 and they decided to build a railway museum there, they combined a railway museum with the name of the workshops. So it became The Workshops Rail Museum. So everybody in Ipswich always would refer to the site as the workshops. I guess it’s just a throwback to so how it was referred to in Ipswich.
LC: To its origins. Well, I think we’re going to wrap up now without a museum in a minute and we’re going to see how many questions you can get through. Are you ready? Yep. OK, here we go. Favourite museum objects.
RS: The Hunslet.
LC: What did you want to be when you grew up?
RS: A rock star.
LC: Favourite era of rail in Queensland.
LC: Which is more iconic. The A-10 number six steam locomotive or the Beyer-Garratt?
LC: Favourite thing about your career?
RS: Learning about history every day.
LC: Would you prefer to work in the field or in the office?
RS: In the office.
LC: Most surprising object you’ve come across in the collection?
RS: An electric pencil eraser.
LC: If you could do another job in a museum for a day, what would it be?
RS: I would like to do Gary the photographer’s job.
LC: What do people think you do at work?
RS: Probably play with trains, all day.
LC: Model trains or real trains?
RS: Real trains.
LC: And biodiversity and geosciences or cultures and histories?
RS: Cultures and histories, of course.
LC: Thanks very much. Well, thanks for joining us today, Rob.
RS: No worries, thanks for having me.
LC: And out to The Workshops Rail Museum in Ipswich to explore the 15 larger than life exhibitions, including Might and Muscle, which you might remember from Season One, Episode Three, the might and muscle of Queensland’s extensive infrastructure system with Jen High. Interested in uncovering more stories? Click the follow button to be notified of the latest podcast episodes. You can follow Queensland Museum on social media, @QldMuseum or head to our website qm.qld.gov.au and while you are there, sign up to our e-news list to be the first to know what’s on at our museums. Until next time. Stay curious.