Garden Railway Photography

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by catherine yronwode

This hand-made building by Jeff Roaten will naturally age and weather if it remains on the garden railway layout -- just like the prototype upon which it was based.


First, a thank-you to John Reid for writing an article on how he has built static dioramas of historical mechanical and railway subjects with the objective of getting them into museums where the public will enjoy them. His clear-headed and upbeat approach to the question of whether modelling is an art form and how to get museums to recognize it as such led me to consider how we preserve our garden railways for future generations, either as art we have built from scratch or as a sort of visual montage or mise-en-scene we have composited from the work of others, both mass-produced and commissioned for our layouts.

John had a goal, namely to get his dioramas into museums. Next, he had great modelling skills and dedication to his task, and he figured out how to overcome his fear of rejection. He modified his work methods and his subject matter to make accomplishing the goal more likely. He used both old and new technologies (including the internet) to assist in making many people aware of his skills and talents and to further his objective.

Unlike John's models, most garden railways are destroyed or broken up when their creators pass away. If surviving heirs have any sense, the locomotives, rolling stock, buildings, and accessories may get donated to the local model railway society or sold online to others who need or want them rather than hauled off to the dump. However, no matter what happens, very few garden railways survive to the second or third generation. This can be seen as a sad end to a beautiful project, as the inevitable rejection of hobby modeling by society at large -- or as a challenge to all garden model-makers: How can our works be preserved?

The biggest problem in comparing John Reid's goal of donating his dine dioramas to a museum versus our members' goals preserving a garden railway layout is the matter of weather and entropy. Garden railways do decay. Unless an individual, a family, or a club take on their maintenance, they will rot and rust away, just as will any historic building or locomotive. Few museums have enough roofed space to cover a G-Scale layout. The issue of museum donation thus primarily applies to dioramas and indoor layouts, i believe

I have been in small county museums that do include HO or O scale layouts of historical (local, regional, or thematic) interest -- with or without running trains. Some of the exhibits consist primarily of models of local landmark buildings and it is noted that they were originally built for use on a model train layout -- but only the buildings are shown, or the trains are static while on display.

As John and others have also mentioned, there is a line to be drawn between model-building and buying a whole lot of what most museum directors would perceive to be "mixed media children's toys."


We need to be honest with ourselves.

Is my cute garden layout, featuring Bachmann Annies and Danbury Mint die cast trucks and a whole lot of amazing scratch-built structures really "museum quality"?

Certainly it photographs well now ... but after ten years in nature, will even the best and most hand-made parts of it still be "museum quality"?

And are there actually museums that care about gardens?

The answer to these questions is "mostly no and probably not."

Garden art is perishable. It always has been -- from Hadrian's Villa to your Uncle Bob's Petunia Patch. But here's an unexpected aspect worth considering: Even though people do not all agree that a garden railroad is art -- and most institutions lack the resources to conserve any form of garden, much less one with a functional train running though it -- they do agree that photography is art. Your photos will remain to tell the tale of your interests, skills, and hard work. So take as many as you can! Those are your heritage.


Entirely hand-crafted by metal sculptor Bruce Hebron, this whimsical little AWNUTS Observatory Car featuring a rotating dome is a highly collectible -- and artistic -- piece of rolling stock.

Now let's talk about the decentralization of image-banking. In these modern times, we no longer need to rely on top-down academic or philanthropic institutions to preserve and display our art. We can be our own museums!

First, get the best camera you can afford, even if it is just a smart phone.

Second, film both stills and videos.

Third, include descriptions of what is in the pictures when you post them online.

Now to address a point about the impermanence of internet text and photo archives, both hobby-oriented and general in scope. Our hobby is not alone in having had to deal with the disappearance of some of the most popular of such sites, and the subsequent loss of their archives. When forums and hosting sites go down without being sold, their many accumulated archives of text and photos are often lost, despite the archival of partial "snap-shots" at sites llike the Wayback Machine.

Will your model railroad web archives disappear? Only if you and your heirs don't own them. Do not rely on free or low-cost services to store and display your photos. Including this one. They do go away -- and when they do, your archive goes away with them.

Instead, buy a web domain and upload your material there. Pay for ten years of registration renewal and web hosting. Post the site's registration and hosting information, expiration date, login, and password on a note where your heirs can find it. Put aside money in a bank account to pay for the next ten years -- or more -- of registration and hosting after your demise.

  • Make it known to your heirs that you wish your site to remain online and that if they cannot pay the upkeep, you would like them to contact people from a list of folks who may be able to take on the very small financial cost of re-registration and hosting out of love for the hobby.
  • Make it also known to your friends and model railway club(s) that you wish your site to remain online, and send each of them the entire contents of the site on a thumb drive or CD so that it can be re-uploaded if it goes down due to negligence on the part of your heirs. Make MULTIPLE copies and put the names and contact information for each person in the list that you send to all.
  • You can, if you wish, WILL your domain contents to a non-profit club like the Redwood Empire Garden Railway Society. Since we are already hosting this domain, we can work with you or your heirs to add the content of you site to ours, at no cost, in order to preserve it. Your domain name wil expire, but the content of the site will remain hosted as long as the REGRS site exists.

As a wise friend once told me, back in the 1990s, "Web pages truly resemble the miracle of the loaves and the fishes in the Bible. They can be created by simply breaking a metaphorical "piece" off of the existing "loaf" of the domain name, and each piece can be subdivided further, until, from one web page, the home or index page of the domain you can create ten -- or ten thousand -- new pages, each one filled with information and photographs."

We may not be able to preserve a large garden layout against entropic damage by donating it to a museum, but when it comes to the art of photography, WE ARE EACH OUR OWN MUSEUMS in this brave new world of the internet.

A word to the wise is sufficient, i hope.

cat yronwode
East Tennessee and Western Northern California RR

"The Shortest Route Between Johnson City and Forestville"