Friday, 20 June 2014



As I clambered up into the cozy pine bunk bed in the Toronto, Hamilton & Buffalo Caboose #70, I nearly tricked myself into thinking that the steam whistle blowing outside would signify the start of a chugging engine and the great Canadian landscape rolling by. Of course, the caboose stayed perfectly still: the sound was only the whistle of the nearby Steam Whistle Brewery, and the caboose detached from its locomotive as it stood in the middle of the Toronto Railway Museum in Roundhouse Park.

Source: TRHA 
Still, I was perfectly happy to explore the caboose in this context. Except for a young boy with a wooden whistle and a conductor’s hat sharing the living quarters, I had the place all to myself. And though I had just removed myself from the tourist crowds outside, the caboose immediately felt homey, personal, and familiar to me. It was no wonder: as I learned from the text panels inside, historically cabooses have served as a “home away from home” for a conductor and his crew. With its wooden nook, rustic kitchen, table and office workspace, it could easily have passed for a cozy bachelor apartment in a cramped city. It was intriguing to imagine the conductor and crew spending so many hours of their lives in that little room, the landscape outside always changing but the “home” inside remaining the same.

Interior of a Caboose. Source: Vanished Americana

All of the ideas, words, plans and daydreams that were created in that little space over time -- the intimation of these memories never fail to intrigue me whenever I visit an office, study, or other private space in the now-public domain of the museum. Whether it was die Lutherstube (Martin Luther’s study) in Wartburg Castle or a replica of Governor Youngdahl’s private office at the Minnesota History Center, I can’t help but wonder about the past when these individuals sat down at their desks to craft ideas both mundane and remarkable -- what were their thought patterns? How did they brainstorm? How did they start their mornings?

Lutherstube. Source: Luther-Region

As for the caboose in particular, being in this private (made public) space also provoked me to think about the magnitude of time I spend in my private office at home. Like my own little stationary caboose, I spend hours of my life thinking, writing, ruminating, as the landscape changes from season to season outside. Many others I know have similar patterns, depending on the nature of their work: a cubicle, desk, or office will witness a vast amount of an individual’s life, while other spaces must be chosen carefully and delegated limited time

If we (as emerging museum professionals) are lucky, then museums fall into this category of desirable external spaces. All these musings on space made me wonder: content aside, how can museums make the most of their space to create a comfortable yet challenging, welcoming yet thought-provoking, enjoyable yet engaging experience? Of course, there is no one answer to this question. Indeed, museums explore a range of spatial considerations to highlight the “true” components of their institution -- whether the “white cube” approach to feature art on the walls, or a combination of periodic elements to create the feeling of a historical time and place. Nevertheless, I would argue that certain museums fail to acknowledge the critical importance of their space and how they use it -- one of the most essential elements of design that can make or break a museum visit or an exhibition’s effectiveness.

White space. Source: Walker Art Blog
Which museum spaces have struck you as memorable or provocative? How do you spend your time away from your “caboose”?

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