Judith McNicol - director of the National Railway Museum in York
PUBLISHED: 00:00 07 November 2018
©2018 Charlotte Graham - CAG Photography Ltd
We talk to the woman charged with keeping the National Railway Museum on track
Judith McNicol has more than 260 locomotives but she’s not a trainspotter. People are her passion and, luckily, she can tick off around 750,000 of them in her spotter’s book every year.
As director of the National Railway Museum in York – the first woman to take on the role since it opened in 1975 – she’s tasked with looking after the thousands of visitors who steam into the Leeman Road attraction every year to enjoy the largest collection of railway objects in the world.
The vast assemblage includes 260 locomotives and rolling stock, 600 coins and medals, 11,000 posters, 2,300 prints and drawings, 1,000 paintings and 1.75m photographs as well as railway uniforms and costume, equipment, documents and records. In other words, a lot of stuff. ‘One of my main aims is to get more stuff on display,’ she said. ‘We have an absolutely enormous collection, but our job is not just to treasure our heritage, it’s to share it.’
Judith, originally from Inverness but without so much as a burr of a Scottish accent, was appointed director in February, after six months as acting director. She joined the Science Museum Group – which also includes the Science Museum in London, the Science & Media Museum in Bradford, the Science & Industry Museum in Manchester and Locomotion in Shildon – in 2005, working her way up to director of people and culture.
Her career began in engineering marketing – ‘my stepfather was an engineer and had always encouraged me to take things apart and tinker’ – before moving into organisation development and venture capitalism. The latter proved problematic though as dismantling companies went against all she believed in as a natural born business builder.
She had no ties so decided to make a new life for herself in York, where her sister lived with her two children.
‘I was sitting in a bar by the river with her on a beautiful summer day and thought “I could live here”,’ said Judith. ‘Then I thought about it more seriously and realised I actually could. There was nothing to stop me.’
She got a year-long contract with the charity UnLtd, a foundation for social entrepreneurs, before joining the team at the National Railway Museum as head of commercial development, overseeing the shops and catering.
‘I wasn’t particularly looking for work in a museum and I didn’t have a passion for trains,’ said Judith. ‘I could see they were beautiful, of course, and I admire the engineering, but they were not my thing.
‘I think, in a weird way that swung it for me because I talked about people – the staff and visitors – in my interview rather than trains. For some, it was all about the locomotives; for me, it was about the visitor experience.’
When she was asked to apply for the top job at the NRM last year, she said no. She had just married Colin, a structural engineer (and fellow enthusiastic tinkerer), had bought a house and was concentrating on her home life.
‘I was persuaded to take it on temporarily,’ said Judith. ‘But within three months – actually it was probably more like six weeks – I knew this was my job and I didn’t want anyone else to have it.’
She began with small but crucial changes, encouraging everyone to take responsibility for litter and cleanliness, moving key locos to improve visibility and provide better selfie angles, and creating a museum-wide emphasis on positive visitor experience.
Now, however, she has her eye on bigger things, namely a £50m masterplan to transform the museum, bringing the epic story of railways past, present and future alive and opening up the world-class collection for even more visitors to enjoy.
The redevelopment is the most significant change since the museum opened in 1975 and will begin with the modernisation and refurbishment of the Great Hall, home to legendary locos like Mallard, the Japanese bullet train and Duchess of Hamilton . More than 12,000 objects will be re-displayed and 1,000 brought into the public realm for the first time. Visitors will also get better access to the locomotives and will get unique views of engines being maintained and fuelled in the prep bay.
The museum also wants to inspire the next generation of young engineers with a ‘Wonderlab’, a £5m purpose-built gallery inspiring youngsters to get hands-on and invent their own solutions to engineering problems.
Judith is leading the charge, keeping the masterplan on track until its slated completion in 2025 to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the opening of the Stockton & Darlington Railway and the museum’s own 50th anniversary. She’s also a key player in York Central, an ambitious £800m regeneration programme to transform a massive brownfield site around the museum into a vibrant new neighbourhood with family homes, open spaces and a quality commercial quarter.
York Central was successfully designated as an Enterprise Zone via a joint bid by City of York Council and the York, North Yorkshire and East Riding Local Enterprise Partnership, unlocking £100m to help deliver the new 72-hectare site at the heart of the city.
As well as 2,500 houses and 87,000 square metres of commercial space, the project includes Museum Square, a new welcome space for the historic railway buildings and a hub for city-wide events, and Central Gallery, a new NRM exhibition hall spanning what is currently Leeman Road, purpose-built to showcase the latest innovations from the modern rail industry.
Not everyone is happy about the multi-million-pound scheme. Just last month, CleanAirYork called for the to be scrapped, claiming pedestrians and cyclists will be forced to share routes with increasing numbers of vehicles and suffer poorer air quality as a result. But Judith is quietly confident that York Central will be approved in the New Year.
‘It’s contentious – something that will change the face of the city forever is bound to be – but the response has generally been pretty positive,’ she said.
‘We need to change York for future generations, offering them enticing employment and great places to live. Currently, young people come to the city for a fantastic university and college education and then they leave. We need to give them reasons to stay.’
And what of her own reasons to stay? What will keep her in this highly demanding role for the long haul?
‘Who wouldn’t want to work here?’ she said, looking round the Great Hall as it echoed to the sound of school children exploring the locos. ‘British engineering is second to none – no one else can touch us – and we get to share the best of the best every day.
‘I love the trains and I love our incredible collection, but for me it’s all about the people. If I know we’ve inspired someone, whether they’re seven or 70, I call that a successful day and go home happy.’