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The Randall Museum in San Francisco hosts a large HO-scale model train layout. Created by the Golden Gate Model Railroad Club starting in 1961, the layout was donated to the Museum in 2015. Since then I have started automatizing trains running on the layout. I am also the de-facto layout maintainer. This blog describes various updates on the Randall project and I maintain a separate blog for all my electronics not directly related to Randall.

2015-12-25 - Non valorem in ruinam

Category Randall

The GGMRC officially donated the layout to the Randall Museum.

L'important ce n'est pas la chute, c'est l'atterrissage.

Now it’s time to (re?)build a relationship and get this going.

Freeze frame. How did we end up in this situation?

The opinion below is solely my own and not the official views of the GGMRC. It is based on my own recollection of events and my own biased opinion on such events.

First some facts. The GGMRC was a non-profit club. It leased space in the basement of the museum, in what seemed to have been an unused place under the museum’s theater back in the 60s. The club started in 1961. The room where it was located was, well, let’s say not well advertised -- one needed to go down a ramp in a side of the museum in what most people just expected to lead to a basement (which it is, after all) and the room was locked most of the time except when club members opened to the public on Saturday. There seems to have been a shake-up between “the club and the landlord” (sic) in the past and a few members quit in response to that. Very vague dates were given to me, could have been anywhere from the late 90s up to early 2000s. Part of the agreement was to have mandatory open days on Saturdays.

Forward a bit and from what I was told, back in 2013 the museum approached the club, indicating a renovation would take place and that the room used by the club’s layout was not up to seismic code. Its roof is slanted (because it’s below a theater) and literally half of it would have to be condemned. Must have been quite a shock to the membership. They would have to literally tear apart their 50-year old layout and rebuild. They started looking at what they could build instead -- which would have been a fairly small and uninteresting layout. Eventually one of the members, being somewhat familiar with construction codes, looked into it and realized that the museum request did not even apply to them and they had to literally argue their way out of demolishing their own 50-year old layout. That would explain why, when I joined, there was some clear tension in the relationship between the club and the museum’s management.

The other thing is that, as part of the renovation, the whole basement was going to be made into public exhibits. The layout room had two doors and one of them lead to other part of the basement used as storage. Only visitors who knew what was there would go there so traffic was somewhat limited. And now all of these would be open to the public and the layout room would become part of the route the public would take. And “of course” since the layout was not property of the museum, there would be no budget for it in the whole renovation. Yet some changes would have to be made, mostly on request from the museum itself.

And thus apparently they began two years of negotiations to draft a new lease contract for the layout, between the city-owned museum and the club. I did participate as an observer to the last negotiation meeting and I was less than impressed.

After the last negotiation meeting, the club members held a special session on November 2015 to discuss the latest contract being negotiated with the Museum. From what I remember, it was noted that:

  • The contract was essentially a modified commercial lease. As-is, it was extremely verbose with many clauses not pertinent to a club, such as requirements to hold insurance at commercial levels way in excess of what the club could financially support. Attempts were made to point this inadequacy, met with the same bureaucratic tone-deaf of it being the city’s “default” contract.
  • The contract recognized “the train layout is an important asset of the museum” (sic). It did clearly state that the club recognized the city gave the club permission to run trains only on the condition that the layout be of public utility to the museum.
  • The contract mandated the club to install two automated routes so that the public could see something when club members were not running trains on the layout. However after two years of working on that contract, the section indicating what should be automated and who should pay for it was still left blank and undecided.
  • The contract stipulated that any alteration to the layout which may impact the automation could only be done after review by the museum. Failure to design or modify the layout in a fashion agreeable to the museum would result in “default”.
  • The contract added that the club must guarantee the automation runs. If something were to break, the club had one week to fix the issue (extended to two with written request and permission), during which the members' permission to use the layout for their own benefit would be suspended. Failure to fix the automation on time would result in “default”.
  • The contract stipulated that the club members must run trains on Saturday as a form of public entertainment. Failure to do so would result in “default”.
  • The contract stipulated that the club members must staff the Junior Engineering Day event held every other month. Failure to do so would result in “default”.
  • The contract allowed the museum to collect 10% of the club members fees, with a complex system of late charges and default interest.
  • "Default" in the contract was defined as a termination of the club rights to use the room. The club should then "remove the layout" from the room (either move it or demolish it). Anything left in the room shall be considered "abandoned" and the club would bear the cost of the city having to remove it.

During the negotiation session I attended, I remember a few points being discussed:

  • It was pointed out by the club that the automation was not clearly defined and most important funding was missing from the contract. The club had no intention to bear the cost of what was essentially a museum mandate, and obviously the museum had no clear intention in funding it directly. Instead the museum staff suggest the club could organize its own charity fund or something similar.
  • The one-or-two-week time limit to fix a broken automation was deemed too short. It’s not uncommon for model train related hardware to be discontinued and not being available for extended periods of time.
  • Regarding the mandate for members to run on Saturdays, it was clearly spelled out as a promise the club could not necessary hold since members’ availability could not be guaranteed. A compromise was proposed, allowing the club to be absent one Saturday per quarter depending on people's availability. That compromise was flatly rejected by the city person in charge of negotiations.

From the club members' interpretation of the contract, it was both untenable and unbalanced. In exchange for allowing the club to run on their own layout, the museum was getting a free fee whilst not having to maintain anything. The museum was also getting free labor from the club members by imposing running days. The only “burden” to the Museum was that it had to provide the electricity, and even that was not written in clear anywhere, it was just implied.

The club was essentially losing any rights to decide on modifications to their own layout, these now being under the discretion of the museum's direction, yet the museum did not bear any cost of maintenance or the cost of such modifications. Written as such, it was oddly balanced in favor of the museum who had ultimate power of decision without having to bear any burden.

The requirement to have someone running every Saturday was deemed simply untenable given the handful of active members -- although likely, it could not be guaranteed especially during typical vacation times, and the contract made that an unquestionable default clause. It was also unbalanced since the museum got to decide which Saturdays were open to public (which is basically all of them except a few holidays as convenient for the museum).

The "default" clause was considered absolutely inappropriate since the layout's construction made it inherently impossible to be removed without severely damaging it. We also all know that no member would have been willing to physically demolish it. And of course the club would have had nowhere else to go.

In my personal view, the "negotiations" (or lack thereof) really helped sink whatever little morale was left in the long-time club members. The lady appointed by the city was particularly adamant that no clause could be negotiated in the club's favor, even when paltry compromises were presented such as allowing a missing Saturday every quarter. In my view, there was really a lack of meeting of the minds, one side viewing the contract as already generous and the other side as constraining beyond reason.

Since this was the result of two years of "negotiations", it was the members' belief that the museum was trying to appropriate themselves the layout and boot the club out. I personally saw no obvious cause to believe this was really what the museum's direction wanted, as in this case I would not attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by apathy.

However I would say that, it they had wanted such an outcome, it would have been a good long term strategy as they did achieve to really ingrain an unhealthy level of fear, uncertainty and doubt in the club up to the point where the club was no longer seeking any new membership, was literally not striving, and eventually just gave up.

Later when the museum reopened, some officials made statements such as “the trains are still here but now you can actually see them, totally dismissing the fact the club members were already spending quite some efforts staffing Saturdays and the very popular Junior Engineering Days before the museum closed for renovation. Such polarizing cheap statements do not help.

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