The Railway Museum Reinvented: The Cité du Train (Mulhouse) and the Nederlands Spoorwegmuseum (Utrecht)
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The Railway Museum Reinvented
The Cité du Train (Mulhouse) and the Nederlands Spoorwegmuseum (Utrecht)

Most museums reinvent themselves periodically. The process is never easy, and it becomes more difficult and costly when displays are built around such massive objects as steam locomotives. The Cité du Train in Mulhouse and the Nederlands Spoorwegmuseum in Utrecht have accomplished this dramatic reinterpretation.1 They are appropriate venues for such a transformation. France not only introduced the widely emulated high-speed Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) some thirty years ago, but its TGV Est, which stops in Mulhouse on its way to Switzerland, is the fastest passenger train in the world.2 The rail system in the much smaller but more densely populated Netherlands is the most intensively used on the Continent.

The French museum opened at its permanent site in 1976 to display steam locomotives and historic rolling stock formerly housed at the Mulhouse Nord railway depot. Although its geographic location in Alsace was not a natural tourist destination for either French nationals or foreign visitors, this Musée Nationale du Chemin de Fer became a popular attraction. Attendance fell over time, however, and the museum closed in December 2003 when work started on an extensive reconfiguration designed by architect (and former scenographer) François Seigneur. That process, which increased the size of the museum to 15,000 square meters and cost €8.6 [End Page 876] million (over $12.3 million at current exchange rates), is the subject of a four-minute film shown on-site. Administration of the transformed facility was transferred to the entrepreneurial culturespaces,3 which performs this service for a number of French museums and historical sites. Since the typical French museum is staffed by government employees and closes one day each week, both the outsourcing and the “7 sur 7” schedule seem almost as radical as the actual recasting of the display.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the Rhine, the National Railway Museum of the Netherlands was undertaking its own renewal project. The museum had begun humbly enough in the mid-1920s to display rail-related ephemera. It was another decade before it began to preserve historically significant equipment, and some items were destroyed during the Second World War. It opened at its permanent site—the remodeled Maliebaan station—in 1954, but despite renovations in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, most of its collection of rolling stock—now augmented by a number of trams—was open to the weather. Major renovations began in 2003, when the station building was restored to its nineteenth-century appearance, and a new facility was built on the other side of the still-existing tracks to contain the “four worlds” described below. The complex reopened in 2005, at a cost of €35 million (over $50 million in today’s currency).

This review will compare the two facilities, presenting what typical visitors will see (and miss seeing) in each of these museums dedicated to the history of the train.

Visitors to the French museum may arrive by automobile (Michelin’s Guide Vert calls it “worth a detour”) or, more appropriately, by train. Both the high-speed TGV Est and the slower Train Corail halt in Mulhouse, where the utilitarian station is decorated with posters of the British-built, nineteenth-century, brass-clad, and flag-draped PO locomotive that pulled the train used by the president of France. After that brief introduction to the “golden age” of rail, however, passengers must board a city bus for the uninspiring ramble through residential and industrial zones to the edge of Mulhouse before they reach the museum where “Cité du Train” is spelled out in neon over the entrance, and a plinthed tank engine serves as a three-dimensional logo (fig. 1). The Nederlands Spoorwegmuseum, on the other hand, is located near the city center, one of a cluster of museums and churches in Utrecht’s museum district, and is accessible by taxi, by bus, or—for the energetic—by foot. Its exterior gives few signs of the function the station has served for more than fifty years, restored as it is to the solid and unassuming character popularly associated with the Dutch...