Levelling up at the National Rail Museum

Wendy Somerville-Woodiwis, senior project conservator, and Ciara Wells, Vision 2025 project sponsor, offer their thoughts on 'levelling up'

30 Dec 2021

The idea of levelling up is not new! We are only employed at the National Railway Museum today because in 1975 it was one of the first national museums to open in the North. This was much to the dismay of some MPs who described the move from Clapham Museum to York as ‘regressive’ and ‘undesirable’ and risked a ‘national transport museum to become a provincial railway museum’ (1) to which the minister of State for the Department of Education and Science, Jennie Lee (incidentally, the wife of Nye Bevan, the founder of the NHS) responded:

The essence is not cost. The essence is that, on all the evidence we have looked at, we can make a national and expanding museum in York. Perhaps I might add that we just have to be a little careful, at this very time when men are trying to reach the moon, in assuming that to go to Oxford or Cambridge, Edinburgh or York, or any of our great cities outside London, is a journey beyond the capacity of those with specialised interests.

The National Railway Museum is a huge success and received over 782,000 visitors in 2019 (before COVID). That is more than York Minster (2).

NRM’s sister museum, Locomotion, opened in Shildon in 2004, which once again levelled industrial heritage further North and has rightfully attracted visitors to one of the most significant in-situ chapters of railway history. It provides job opportunities and has regionally conserved significant cultural heritage for future generations. Locomotion was predicted to have annual turnover of 60,000 visitors but actually receives 200,000 per annum (3) and is expanding.

Soyez Capsule and Sans Pareil at launch event 22.11.17
© Sam Terrace / NMR

The Science Museum Group, supported by Durham County Council are now building a second collections building in Shildon that will house a further 40-50 NRM vehicles and rolling stock. When that is complete in 2023, Locomotion will have the most rail vehicles under cover anywhere in Europe.

Shildon will also soon benefit from Government levelling up funding for which Durham Council have successfully applied. The Council will use the money to reopen Whorlton Bridge, deliver the A68 Toft Hill bypass and to create a heritage corridor along the Stockton and Darlington Railway line. Whorlton is the UK’s oldest suspension bridge. Ahead of the bicentenary of the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 2025, this investment created a legacy for the area as the birthplace of modern railways and help drive visitors to heritage and visitor attractions along the route.

Conservator Wendy Somerville-Woodiwis re-gilding Queen Victoria's Saloon
© Charlotte Graham / NMR Conservator Wendy Somerville-Woodiwis re-gilding Queen Victoria's Saloon

In York, the NRM is also undergoing a transformation ahead of its 50th birthday in 2025 and sits at the centre of a major brownfield regeneration project, York Central. York Central is a 45-hectare development created in partnership with Network Rail, Homes England, City of York Council, and our museum. It promises to transform our corner of the city, redeveloping former railway land to create 2,500 homes and a new commercial quarter creating up to 6,500 jobs. The museum is poised to become the development’s cultural anchor, the heartbeat of the York Central development. In this sense ‘levelling up’ is integrating the otherwise derelict ex-railway land with the city’s railway identity to create a new neighbourhood that is tangible, profitable, and attractive in a regional context and still retains its railway identity. We hope this will be the catalyst for other national institutions to make the move to York, and our museum is part of the bid to bring the new headquarters of Great British Railways to this part of the city.

The developments in both Shildon and York are a powerful message that museums do bring economic benefits across the country and can reignite a town’s sense of pride and cultural identity (7).

Originally published by The Heritage Alliance as part of the 2021 Heritage Debate on the topic: Levelling Up: What Does it Mean for Heritage?


1: https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/1969-07-17/debates/acdcc756-26e6-4202-8d83-6a670d76717e/TransportMuseum

2: https://theyorkie.co.uk/2019/03/29/national-railway-museum-named-most-visited-attraction-in-yorkshire/

3: https://www.locomotion.org.uk/about-us/press-office/locomotion-reaches-25m-visitor-milestone

4: https://www.durham.gov.uk/article/26464/Levelling-Up-Fund-to-help-connect-rural-communities-and-restore-heritage-sites-

5: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-competition-to-find-first-hq-of-great-british-railways

6: https://www.railwaymuseum.org.uk/2025/york-central

7: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/673935/The_Mendoza_Review_an_independent_review_of_museums_in_England.pdf

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