Brunel 200 Legacy STEAM – Brunel and the Battle of the Gauges
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Brunel and the Battle of the Gauges

The exhibition at STEAM in Swindon told the story of Brunel and his involvement in the Battle of the Gauges – one of the most controversial and arduous phases of Brunel’s career – and this was illustrated through the use of objects and graphic panels. As part of this exhibition visitors were asked to become Gauge Commissioners and cast their vote as to which gauge they believed to be the better design. Voting was open for 6 months and the results were displayed in September 2006.

Complementing the exhibition was a diorama of Brunel’s office in 18 Duke Street, London, depicting the eve of his presentation to the Gauge Commissioners in 1846. This was created inside the Museum and showed the great man at his desk, surrounded by plans, drawings and equipment.

The aim of the project was to give visitors a great understanding of Brunel and his vision for the Great Western Railway, including the struggles the encountered in his career. It was hoped that visitors would leave the museum having learnt and been inspired to learn more about Brunel, and children encouraged to consider engineering as a career. The exhibition was interpreted for a family audience so it could reach the widest proportion of the Museum’s visitors.

The exhibition opened in April 2006 and ran until October 2007 and was developed and projected managed by the Curatorial team at STEAM. The project was also assisted by the following people:

David Birks – Artist and Architectural Historian
Mike and Rosie Compton – Brunel model makers
STEAM’s Technical and Maintenance Dept
STEAM Volunteers

The exhibition opened on 6th April 2006 with a VIP Preview Night sponsored by First Great Western. This allowed close partners of the Museum to enjoy the exhibition in special surroundings, and was a fitting launch for Brunel 200 at STEAM and in Swindon. First Great Western also sponsored a Brunel Birthday Party for Children over the weekend of 8th/9th April 2006.

Producing the exhibition was a huge experience for the Curatorial Team at STEAM. It increased their knowledge and appreciation of Brunel, and gave them a better understanding of his legacy.


Visitor Numbers – it is virtually impossible to indicate how Brunel 200 activities impacted on visitor numbers. However, over the period April to September 2006, visitor numbers to STEAM, at 48k, were up 29% on the same period in 2005 and in 2004.

Vote Responses – 1,500 visitors voted as Gauge Commissioners. Broad Gauge won by an overwhelming majority, showing that Brunel’s ideas are still as popular as ever.

Feedback – visitor responses were very positive. People liked the interactive element of the exhibition and the family orientation. A lot of feedback focused on Brunel’s Office. Many people were so impressed that they thought that it should be made into a permanent feature at STEAM.
The exhibition was delivered on time and to budget – this gave staff a sense of satisfaction and pride.

Raised profile of STEAM’s collection and archive – previously unseen objects were put on display for Brunel 200, as well as some that were loaned out to other museums (Newton Abbot Museum, Holburne Museum, Bath). Archive material was also illustrated in various new Brunel related publications.

Acquisition of new display equipment – Brunel 200/HLF funding allowed the Museum to acquire 5 new display cases, environmental monitoring kits and security devices. It also allowed STEAM to purchase a new Brunel character figure which will now be utilised in the Museum as a permanent display.

Linked Projects

Various projects supported and complemented STEAM during Brunel 200. They helped boost the profile of the Museum and encouraged new visitors to attend events.

STEAM Education – The Education Department developed a new Brunel 200 themed Victorian Discovery session, as well as a Brunel 200 Outreach Session which was available on request. 49 classes took part in the Brunel 200 Discovery session.

Swindon Railway Convention at STEAM – This is an annual event run by the Museum, but took on a Brunel 200 theme for September 2006. 3049 visitors attended the weekend event.

Brunel: in Love with the Impossible – an illustrated presentation by Andrew Kelly as part of Swindon Festival of Literature held at STEAM on 7th May 2006.

Isambard’s Kingdom – the hidden but lasting legacy – a presentation by Judy Jones as part of Swindon Festival of Literature held at STEAM on 10th May 2006.

Brunel Speeding the Mail – British Postal Museum and Archive Touring exhibition displayed at STEAM between 30th August and 20th September 2006.

Heritage Open Day – the unique Railway Cottage, set in the heart of Brunel’s Railway Village, gave visitors an idea of what living conditions were like for railway works in the early 1900’s.

Work of Genius: I K Brunel’s Engineering Achievements and Their Legacy – a symposium hosted by English Heritage, university of Bath and Brunel 200 held at STEAM on 15th September 2006.

Brunel’s Kingdom – a specially commissioned choral work performed by Swindon Choral Society held at STEAM on 23rd September 2006.

Media Coverage

Media coverage was extremely positive for the exhibition. Articles appeared in both local and regional newspapers and specialist magazines (The Railway Magazine and First Great Western on-board magazine). Coverage also included a BBC Points West television broadcast and a BBC Radio Wiltshire interview.

The Curatorial team also supplied a number of archive images and documents for reproduction in several new publications. A reprint of Isambard Brunel’s biography on his father, The Life of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, published in conjunction with STEAM and contained many images from the Museum’s collection, as did Stephen Brindle’s book, Brunel. This helped raise the profile of STEAM’s collection and gave people access to material not usually on display at the Museum.

Dealing with the different types media at all different levels was a good networking exercise. The amount of work, whether local or regional, gave staff a good idea of how they can market events and exploit the media to their advantage.

Overall Evaluation of Brunel 200

Brunel 200 was a fantastic regional event and benefited the visitors to STEAM immensely. The support networks and committee meetings were always enthusiastic and passed on the relevant information easily. The media hype surrounding the event worked well, which meant that by the time our project had reached planning stages most people knew of the celebrations and expected STEAM to be participating. The support also allowed the Museum the opportunity to get funding from the HLF. The application for the funding was made easier and more streamlined by the Brunel 200 network, and assisted STEAM in being rewarded funding for what the HLF criteria would normally regard as a relatively minor project.

Brunel 200 events prompted the curatorial team at STEAM to produce a ‘blockbuster’ exhibition. An exhibition of this size has never been attempted before by the current curatorial team and its success has given staff the confidence to produce more ambitious exhibitions in the future.

For further information about STEAM’s work and current exhibition programme, contact:

STEAM Museum of the GWR
Kemble Drive

Elaine Arthurs (Collections Officer) and Felicity Jones (Curator)
February 2007