Honouring the research

In a thought-provoking essay about his prototypical waybills, Tony Thompson asks, “is it merely visual?” He likens the typical approach to model railroad paperwork to operating our railroads with freight cars made of blocks of wood decorated with post-it note reporting marks. If we are happy with representational paperwork, we should also be happy with representational models, he argues.

This, of course, begs the question: why aren’t we happy with representational models? More specifically, why am I not happy with representational models?

For prototype modellers such as myself or indeed Tony, the answer has to be more than that it looks cool. That should satisfy a freelancer, but there must be something deeper that drives us to not only have models that look good, but that are also accurate. Why am I, for example, spending time to build a model of Canada Atlantic #622 in Proto:87, rather than relettering one of the excellent coarse-HO Bachmann eight-wheelers?

One answer might be that it is a challenge, and indeed it often is! However, I suspect that is not really the case with paperwork: most high-school kids could reproduce prototype paperwork using their favourite online tools.

Another answer, and one that I think answers Tony’s question with an emphatic “no,” is that we prototype modellers spend a lot of time researching. Accepting a poor representation of the prototype denies that research its proper outlet. Without an outcome such as a model or a publication, we may as well not have undertaken the research in the first place. Once you know what the model or piece of paper should look like, accepting anything else is either a lie or a failure (of skill, or time or other resources). A failure is understandable, but a lie dishonours the research.

Now, we all have different tolerances for lies, and I suspect that tolerance has something to do with the effort that went into discovering the truth in the first place. I have spent years looking for photos of Canada Atlantic box cars, for example, and when I get around to modelling some, I will pull all three of those photos together and scratchbuild the best models I can. If, on the other hand, I had simply purchased a book about Canada Atlantic box cars (oh please, someone discover a hidden trove of artifacts and write it!), I might not be so invested in the truth; I might cut some corners to apply my resources elsewhere. Put another way, if the lie dishonours the research, then we risk dishonouring the researcher, who could be us!

So, no, Tony, it is not just visual. It is a matter of honour.

3 thoughts on “Honouring the research

  1. Rene;
    You touched a nerve. I’ve done a few models for museums and am shocked to find their “good enough” approach to historical representations. One case I had modified a locomotive and car kits to look much like what is shown in the photos right there in the museum. One day I came by and the director had added a caboose to the train, which it never had since construction in 1896. It looked cool and what is a train without a caboose? So much for respecting research!

    1. Museum directors are an interesting bunch because they straddle a line between historian and entertainer. Even so, “because it looks cool” implies a cavalier attitude, rather than a thoughtful alignment audience’s expectations. As I say, each of us has a different tolerance and reasons for lying. Perhaps the museum director was not as invested in the models as you were?

      Clearly your mistake was to build the model in a readily available scale. I bet if you’d gone with S scale, there would still be no caboose.

  2. The research aspect of prototype modeling is what is appealing to me. I’ve been researching a feed mill in Redmond, Wa going on 15+ years, and working on a model on and off for that long. Its fun to discover little details such as a grain silo was 12′ into the railroad ROW. Why does it matter? To most people it doesn’t but the research makes on strive to make as accurate historical representation of that specific point in time.

    This level of research also lead me to find prototype drawings of a Great Northern Snow plow and build it “board by board”.

    The challenge of the research almost becomes a hobby in of itself.

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