Journal of Transport History (ISSN 0022-5266) Volume 26 no.1  March 2005

© 2005 Manchester University Press

Museum reviews (page 112)

Mexico’s National Railway Museum
Mueso Nacional de los Ferrocarriles Mexicanos, 11 Norte 1005 esq. 10 Poniente, Centro Histórico, Puebla, Puebla CP 72000, México. Phone + 52 222 232 4988 or 246 0395, e-mail musferro@prodigy.nwt.mx, Web site azteca.conaculta.gob.mx/museo/

The city of Puebla, capital of the state of Puebla, was founded by the Spanish in 1531, south-east of Mexico City and halfway to the Atlantic port of Veracruz.  Its advantageous location and magnitude of the economy secured Puebla’s place as the second city of the country for many years.  Although such is no longer the case, Puebla is still a very important centre, fourth or fifth in the national rank.  During the nineteenth century Puebla developed into one of the main hubs of railway activity in Mexico, and this explains why it was chosen as the seat of a national railway museum, the Mueso Nacional de los Ferrocarriles Mexicanos (MNFM), located on a plot formerly part of the city’s old station.

The old Puebla station, built in 1869, was operational for just over a century; in 1975 it was replaced by a new station in another part of town, and in 1984 it was decided that the original site should be transformed into a museum.  Funding to achieve this goal came from a combination of public and private sources, namely the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, the Ferrocarriles Nacionales de México (the State-owned railway, controversially broken up and privatized as part of the North American Free Trade Agreement), and a philanthropic organisation, the Fundación Jenkins.

The MNFM opened to the public in 1988, its aim being ‘to guarantee the rescue, safe keeping, study and communication of the national heritage, cultural and artistic, generated by the Mexican railways in the course of their 150 years’ history’.  At its core lies a valuable collection of locomotives and rolling stock.  The museum also holds tools, equipment, a small number of artefacts associated with railways, and a research centre, which includes a specialized library, assorted records, photographs, films, diagrams, maps and technical drawings from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in a collection that comprises more than 40,000 items, chiefly books and magazines.

A large quantity of the pieces in the MNFM’s collection were gathered in Puebla from different parts of the country, especially from Aguascalientes, which, 537 km north-west of Mexico City, was considered too distant from the capital, regarded by many at the country’s ‘centre’, to host a national museum.  (Puebla is only 129 km away.)  At the time, political considerations plus financial constraints led the local authorities to hand over many items, and the people from Aguascalientes had to be content with contributing to the national cause. Nowadays the process would probably be more controversial.  There are a few regional museums specialising in transport, plus some science museums that have valuable transport-related exhibits.  Although none appears to be overly successful, their very existence suggests that regional and local groups see the preservation and dissemination of their railway traditions as a worthy aim.  Regional interests – as well as those of overseas powers such as the United States – long shaped the development of Mexico’s railways, and may yet do so in the future beyond the present state of paralysis facing the system.

The NMFM consists of a huge outdoors area, a principal building which holds permanent and temporary displays in a number of small rooms, and the research centre.  Entry is free, as is the car park; there are no shop or refreshment facilities, no brochures and very little in respect of labels or signs throughout the museum.  The wardens are friendly but unfortunately cannot act as guides, although they are happy to answer questions. In recent years efforts have been made to liven up the museum, and to widen its scope; it has a children’s coach and a ‘science wagon’, aimed at primary school students; it hosts concerts and workshops, and it is a favoured venue for editorial presentations and conferences.

The main permanent exhibition is composed of artefacts and memorabilia, arranged in cabinets and bearing succinct notes that show only the names of donors and/or the collection of which they are part.  Evidently the exhibitors consider that the objects are self-explanatory, and visitors are forced to draw their own conclusions.  The largest of the halls is dedicated to temporary exhibitions, not always directly related to railways and thus rather out of context, a situation made worse by the inadequacy of pointers and background information.

The outdoor displays are the most interesting part of the museum.  There, spacious and quiet surroundings, and amazing views of the snowy mountains, make up in some degree for the lack of context and information.  With room to move about – although the NMFM is not a popular attraction, so there is little need to elude crowds – visitors are able to examine the pieces at their leisure and enter several coaches that have been restored to show various aspects of railway transport.  Especially attractive are a complete presidential train of the 1940s and a mail carriage that was still in use in the early 1990s.  As to locomotives, there are several steam, diesel and electric examples.  Most date from the first three decades of the twentieth century, and the vast majority are of American manufacture – not unexpectedly, given that country’s strong influence on Mexican railways.  There is, however, one steam locomotive that was entirely made in Mexico – in Aguascalientes, to be precise – in 1913.

On the whole, the Mexicanness of the railways is underlined, if anything, and references to foreign influences are toned down.  (The casual visitor is unlikely to pick up on the significance of the foreign origin of many of the large objects.)  There are no allusions to the role that railways had, and still have, in many parts of the world, that would allow visitors to think of the Mexican case in a wider context.  There is also a sense that Mexico has moved beyond railways, that the country does not need them any more.  Perhaps this is because as a national institution the museum does not feel to appropriate to comment on an industry that has passed into private hands.  The connotations of the displays in Puebla is that railways have nothing to offer but museum material, and that they have no place at all in Mexicos’s future.  Whilst it is true that most passenger lines ceased to operate years ago – except for three, managed by private companies that offer luxury package holidays – this is to ignore the important freight business, always arguably the more significant side of operations.  At any rate, it is a shame that the NMFM neglects the task of helping people to recognise connections between past present and future.

Samantha Álvarez Institute of Railway Studies and Transport History, York

Transcribed by R. Todd Minsk, July 2005