We just got back from this year’s stint volunteering at Orange Empire Railway Museum‘s “Day Out With Thomas” (oh, and if you haven’t gone, and you want to buy tickets… there’s one more weekend, so click here… and buy lots of merch). I thought I would share with you some thoughts that went through my head this festival.
I’ve been doing RailFests since the late 1980s. I’ve seen them be festivals for rail lovers. I’ve seen us run the tracks to capacity. I’ve seen us run into Perris. Since 2001, I’ve seen Thomas and his friends™ join us and pretty much supercede the festivals of yore. In the past, I’ve bemoaned the loss of the old festivals, but this year I realized what the problem is: relationships. I’ve written before with respect to Jewish institutions about the importance these days of building relationships to get an organization to survive. I’ve talked about it with theatres as well: I’ll subscribe to those where I have a relationship with the artistic staff, and feel a relationship to the organization. The RailFests at OERM did that: the people became like family — you supported the organization for the people as well as the mission.
As the museum has grown, it has moved towards the “professional” side. There have been flirtations with professional staff. There have been more policies and procedures visible. There has been less of an outreach and a family nature to the nurturing of the volunteers. This is not a side-effect of Thomas himself — volunteers could have been as easily nurtured under Thomas. I think it is an attitude shift; a professionalization that, while needed, may not have been executed with all the considerations in place.
All is not lost, however. What the museum needs to do is develop some events that will bring back those relationships. My belief would be to bring back the Spring Railfest as it used to be — that is, going to the membership for the volunteers, and not just depending on the local youth (good as they are). Bringing the people back to work together with other members builds those relationships. In the last few years, there have been Spring Railfests, but they’ve been nothing like the old ones — or at least they haven’t had the all out call for volunteers. Further, they haven’t been well publicized to the membership well in advance.
As for Thomas: From what I saw, attendance was lower this year. I don’t know if the popularity of the little blue engine is declining under Mattel ownership, if it is economic clime, or there was just a big lack of publicity to draw people in. Whatever the reason, it needs to be analyzed so that it can be corrected next year. We also need to make sure that we’re not solely depending on Thomas for operations funding — this is where the Spring Railfest comes in. Popularity of children’s icons are limited — where are the Rugrats today — and there needs to be plans for when Thomas is replaced with the next big thing.
There’s also the question of when trains themselves will be passe. They won’t be passe for those who rode them or the generation thereafter … but today’s kids, who have never grown up with the old passenger train. A museum of those evokes no nostalgia. Perhaps there will be museums of the high-speed trains of the future. There needs to be something forward looking — something that will encourage trains as transportation in the future.
One last word: There were a bunch of kids helping today from the California Military Institute in Perris. These young adults were remarkable — polite, eager to work, eager to learn, eager to help. Their instructors and supervisors should be proud of how they are raising these children, and I look forward to good things from them. I spoke to a number of them who were helping me on the cars, and they all of strong educational plans. Well done, CMI.