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Smithsonian Affiliations has accepted the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania as one of its newest members, clearing the way for the eventual exhibition of Smithsonian artifacts at the site in Strasburg, Lancaster County. “This type of association with the Smithsonian gives you instant credibility” said Jeffrey Bliemeister, director of the Railroad Museum. “It’s a good marketing tool that I hope will boost foot traffic in the museum. This also opens the door for smoother artifact loans and exchanges of ideas with the Smithsonian.”

A national outreach program open to any nonprofit or institution associated with a state or local government, Smithsonian Affiliations fosters high-level partnerships with museums and other organizations in an effort to share collections, learning opportunities and expertise. Essentially, visitors to Smithsonian-affiliated museums may view artifacts, works of art and specimens from the national collections without having to leave their communities. Policies of Smithsonian Affiliations are handed down by the senior leadership of the Smithsonian Institution, the largest museum complex in the world.

No stranger to Smithsonian-level partnerships, Bliemeister spent a portion of his nine years as a curator with the Antique Automobile Club of America Museum in Hershey, Dauphin County, working to get that institution on board with the Smithsonian. His hard work paid off as that museum is now part of Smithsonian Affiliations.

Bliemeister became director of the Railroad Museum in October 2014. From his first day, he knew that he wanted to pursue Smithsonian affiliation. “I just knew that it would be a good option here,” he said. “I knew that no other PHMC site was a Smithsonian affiliate and I wanted this museum to be the first.”

The Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, which opened in 1975, was the first of its kind in North America to be designed specially as a railroad museum, according to Kurt Bell, an archivist with the Pennsylvania State Archives who penned the introduction to The Trains of Our Memory: A History of the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, 1965-2015 by Peter Osborne, published earlier in 2016 by Yardley Press.

Osborne meticulously researched his book, interviewing staff, patrons and lawmakers. “He did a thorough job,” Bliemeister said. “To me, this book talks to us as an institution. It details our growth over the past four decades. Going forward, the staff at the museum will use The Trains of Our Memory as a one-stop shop for the museum’s institutional history.”

The Railroad Museum rounded out one of the visions of S. K. Stevens, executive director of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) from 1956 to 1972, who sought to promote the state’s industrial heritage through a series of single museums that also includes Drake Well Museum and Park (for oil) in Venango County near Titusville; Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum in Scranton, Lackawanna County; and Pennsylvania Lumber Museum in Galeton, Potter County.

Osborne’s work delves deep into the museum’s history. For example, in the 1960s PHMC voted multiple times for the yet-to-be named museum to be constructed in Strasburg rather than Altoona, Blair County, or Mount Union, Huntingdon County, where railroading had forged strong roots for generations. The robust tourist base and proximity to the Strasburg Rail Road, where visitors are afforded hands-on experiences, were both considered important criteria in locating the museum in Lancaster County. After Witmer Rohrer’s cornfield in Strasburg was approved as the permanent home for the museum, PHMC moved ahead with other plans, including a name for the project. One of the names proposed, the Pennsylvania Railroad Museum, was discarded because it was thought it might imply that the museum was associated with the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Aside from its partnership with the Smithsonian, the museum has other plans already in the works to improve interpretation of its collections. Soon, construction will begin on a five-stall roundhouse, designed to protect the part of its collection currently stored outdoors. The museum is also in the final phase of rolling out new technologies such as touch-screen kiosks and improved artifact labels aimed at enhancing the visitor experience.


Sean Adkins is social media manager for PHMC. Look for his updates at Pennsylvania Trails of History on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest