Presentation is Everything

or ‘It’s not how big it is but how you show it off’
By Roger Joel

Despite the title of this article I am not advocating a change of uniform from anoraks to dirty raincoats for exhibiting model railroaders. Also let me reassure you I am also not proposing a ‘dumbing down’ of modelling standards for exhibition layouts. What I am campaigning for is a general improvement in the way in which many exhibition layouts are presented to the spectator.

In all aspects of modern life we are continually bombarded with slick marketing. Be it television programmes, magazine advertising, the Internet or any of the other mediums of mass communications. On a day to day basis we all encounter high standards of presentation. People amongst us may bemoan the passing of a simpler life and even blame it all on our cousins across the pond; but everyone’s expectations with regard to the way things are presented is very much higher than even 10 years ago. It is my belief that those of us who exhibit railway layouts should endeavour to do so in the most professional manner. All event organisers are competing for attendees (and their money) many of whom may not be railroad fanatics. It is incumbent upon all exhibitors to ensure that the spectators get their ‘monies worth’.

I can already hear the chorus from the devoted model railroaders amongst us. ‘The quality of modelling is what counts’ and ‘Who is bothered by what the general public think’. In no way am I advocating good presentation as a means of masking ‘less than perfect’ modelling, more that it should be an element towards achieving total perfection in a layout. With regard to what the public think we must all be bothered as this is where the next generation of modellers and the majority of our funding comes from. The following observations are based upon my experiences with a number of club exhibition layouts and most recently with ‘Pine Bluffs and Ceda Falls’. Not that we in the AMRG American Section necessarily always abide by the guidelines I outline here, but at least we try.

So what do I mean by presentation within the context of model railroad layouts. For a start so many potentially impressive layouts appear mediocre because they are not presented in the best light, which conveniently introduces my first area.


It is definitely worth the effort to provide lighting for a layout. On so many layouts it is difficult to view the detail, so loving modelled by the owners, because no lighting has been incorporated. The ambient lighting at many exhibition venues is atrocious and does absolutely nothing for the exhibits. I have fond memories of an exhibition in a sports hall illuminated by sodium lamps which caused all the operators and most of the layouts to look as though they were suffering from a terminal case of jaundice.


Map of Pine Bluffs and Ceda Falls, a large, color copy of which is displayed on the layout at exhibitions.
Map of Pine Bluffs and Ceda Falls, a large, color copy of which is displayed on the layout at exhibitions.

Most layout builders establish a location and historical period for their layouts. Having done so they then fail to communicate this to the spectator or at best make a passing effort by pinning a scrappy piece of paper to any convenient part of the layout. The thought that you put into the study and accomplishment of the period and location deserves much better than that. Anyone familiar with Pine Bluffs will remember that we have adopted a fictitious newspaper for the period and fitted extracts to the front of the baseboards. These extracts are mounted in sloping panels which are positioned so as to be close to the item/mini scene to which they are referring (see the next paragraph). Of course it is not necessary for all exhibitors to go to these lengths, just making sure the information is well presented and visible is enough.


Whilst on the subject of communication I thought it would be worthwhile having a short diversion into the realms of mini-scenes. I have found this is a good way to bring the layout to life for the spectator. Rather than distribute figures and vehicles around the layout in a random fashion we have created a series of mini-scenes each one playing out a story that is described on the front of the baseboard. In our case this story is written as an article in the local newspaper of the period. An example of this and the extract from the Pine Bluffs Gazette is shown below.


Canadian Mountie ‘Gets His Man’

Canadian Mountie Robert Frazier yesterday captured desparate criminal Freddie ‘Moose Napper’ Rogers. Rogers, wanted in connection with the disappearance of a number of moose from the Calgary region of Canada, was apprehended by Mountie Frazier and his tame wolf Mackenzie in the vicinity of the diner owned by Sam and Ella Rottenburger. When interviewed by our reporter the Canadian policeman said he had received every help in apprehending Mr Rogers from Sheriff Lorne Auder and the people of Pine Bluffs. Constable Frazier returns to Canada with the accused today.

Communication 2

In addition to providing adequate visual information on the layout we must also consider the act of verbal communication with the audience. How many exhibition layouts have we seen where the sullen operators skulk behind the layouts appearing to openly defy anyone daring to ask a question. Yes it can get a little tiring answering the question ‘How did you make the rocks on the layout’, for the umpteenth time in a day, however I reiterate the idea of encouraging the future members of the hobby. A friendly response also helps to create a positive attitude at the exhibition and so hopefully encourages visitors to return another year. When exhibiting we always try to have at least one group member available behind the layout to answer questions.

The Layout

Perhaps the most important element. It is no good having good lighting, lots of information and people to answer questions if the layout looks as though it was carried over an assault course prior to being set up at the venue. There may be some element of pride in the fact that your layout has been on the exhibition circuit for over 10 years, as long as it doesn’t look like it.

Dusting, an alien activity to most of us, but a worthwhile task if the layout is to look its best under the lights. We try and operate a regime of gentle cleaning attempting to get a balance between suitably weathered and clean and tidy, at least that’s our excuse.

We always make every effort to hide the baseboard joints. There is nothing worse than a scale 3 foot gap running across the middle of a depot yard (unless you are modelling the San Francisco/Los Angeles area). The joins are filled with fine sand and Woodland Scenics material to match in with the surrounding area (now the exhibition organisers know where the little piles of sand on the floor have come from after all the exhibitors have gone home).


The difference between a layout and a diorama and perhaps the most difficult element to get constantly correct. I have viewed many exhibition layouts that appeared to be dioramas due to the chronic lack of any movement, sometimes for minutes at a time. Not that I am advocating operating trains at scale speeds of 400 mph or running such a frequent service that a sleepy country depot resembles Clapham Junction at 08.30 on a Monday morning. As a yardstick we aim for the concept of ‘something moving, somewhere, most of the time’. In the construction of the American Sections module Bent Elbow Canyon, whose centerpiece is a large curved wooden trestle, we hid one of the main lines behind the rear scenery. We thought this would give us some variety in operating. Needless to say what do most spectators want to see, a train passing over the bridge, so the rear road is very rarely used at exhibitions.


I trust that those of you who have stayed with this article to the end have not regarded it as preaching, I just feel strongly about the way we present ourselves at exhibitions. If this has caused you to think about the way you present your layout then all to the good. If you have said, ‘we do all of that anyway’ then power to your elbow and can you send your name and layout particulars to our exhibition organiser.