Bringing a Museum Object to Life: The John Bull Locomotive

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6a00e553a80e108834014e864b472b970d-500wi.jpgI am perpetually stymied by wanting to see museum objects come to life. I see a telescope in a museum, and I want to look through it. I see a television from 1939, and I want to figure out where the picture was projected. I stand in front of museum objects on my tip-toes or squatting near the floor, trying to get a sense of what these objects were like for the people who experienced them as they were intended. After all, most of our artifacts weren't made just to be on exhibit. Not too long ago, I worked on a project that ended up being surprisingly satisfying in this respect.

For the past few years, we've been on a mission to develop educational materials related to the seven landmark objects of the museum. The Star-Spangled Banner was easy, then the Greensboro lunch counter, and our fabulous telescope used by Maria Mitchell. And then we turned to the John Bull locomotive on the first floor of the National Museum of American History.

The "John Bull" was one of the first successful locomotives in the United States. It was imported from England by the Camden and Amboy Railroad in 1831. Upon its arrival, it was assembled by C and A Railroad employee Isaac Dripps.

6a00e553a80e108834014e864b4f9f970d-500wi.jpgI know plenty of little kids who love trains, so I was intrigued by what magic we could whip up with this big old locomotive. As I sat down to write the suite of activities, I was desperate for a better sense of what the John Bull was like in operation. Lucky for me, this particular object had come to life ... and not too long ago!

For the 150th anniversary of the John Bull, the museum did extensive research and decided it would be safe to operate the locomotive one last time. In 1981, several staff members dressed in period costume and the curator/train operator fired up the engine for a video recorded trip along the tracks in Georgetown. We edited down the video to be suitable for an elementary school audience (and added a few seconds of introduction), but enjoy these few minutes of the John Bull's anniversary run.

I love that you can hear the whistle of the John Bull blowing, the fire snapping, the thrum of the wheels turning. You can see how embers flew from the smokestack. It gave a glimpse of what travel by train felt like for those 1830's passengers who were "wow"-ed by its speed.

What objects in our museum would you like to see come to life? We can't make any promises, but we can certainly double-check the video archives!

You can find more images and historical information about the John Bull Locomotive in America on the Move.

Images: 1. The John Bull locomotive on display at the National Museum of American History; 2. Isaac Dripps, the mechanic who assembled the John Bull in 1831, drew this picture of how it looked at that date from memory in 1887.



This post was originally published on the National Museum of American History's "O Say Can You See?" blog and is republished here with permission.

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Jenny Wei is an education specialist at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History.

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