Te Papa's collection of railway models is largely the work of craftsman and railway enthusiast Frank Roberts.
Railway modelling dates back to the 'Age of Steam', the years after 1840 when rail networks began to be laid around the world.
To contemporaries, the fast, complicated steam locomotives and brightly painted carriages were as exciting as space travel was more than a century later. Craftspeople were soon making models of trains. Some were simple toys; others were highly detailed replicas in miniature, which are regarded now as important historical artefacts.
Born in 1882, Roberts spent seventeen years as a cleaner, fireman, and driver for the Railways Department. He and his brother George then became partners in an electrical firm, although much of Frank's time was spent developing a working 'garden railway' at his home in the Auckland suburb of Epsom. Frank built 1:24 scale models of New Zealand locomotives, working from photographs, close observation, and his own memories, rather than plans. Together with George's models of rolling stock, Frank's locomotives provide an accurate record of the New Zealand railways from the 1870s to the 1930s.
Perhaps the highlight of Frank Roberts' career as a model-maker came when he was commissioned to operate a working layout at the 1940 Centennial Exhibition in Wellington. Thousands of visitors saw the model railway, and many considered it the exhibition's greatest attraction.
In 1950, Roberts sold his models to the Railway Department. They were widely exhibited for many years, and Roberts was employed until his death in 1963 to maintain them to museum display standard. In June 1993, just before it was privatised, New Zealand Rail gifted its collection of heritage models to Te Papa.