Motoring on: Coventry Transport Museum - Museums Association

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Motoring on: Coventry Transport Museum

Coventry Transport Museum has stepped up a gear with its latest redevelopment, but it could still make its subject more accessible, writes Alison Porter
Alison Porter
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Coventry Transport Museum is obviously on an exciting journey. The city centre museum, which celebrated its silver jubilee last year, has just completed a £6.9m redevelopment, hot on the heels of the £7.5m capital project in 2004 that resulted in a doubling of visitor figures and professional recognition as a finalist in the Gulbenkian Prize for museums and galleries in 2005. And later this year it plans to open a Model World gallery and a new cafe.

With their reputation as honey pots for enthusiasts, transport museums have to try that bit harder to appeal to new audiences while keeping their traditional visitors happy and satisfied. So is the investment paying off in Coventry?

The latest redevelopment has created new commercial vehicle and motorcycle galleries, a new education centre, and an archive and library resource centre. The museum's popular Landmarques gallery, which charts the city's transport industry from 1869 to 1948 through reconstructed walk-through environments, was also refurbished as part of the project.

With its huge window onto the street, the commercial vehicle gallery has enormous potential to make connections to the modern city and to inspire passers-by to visit. But at the moment, the opportunity has been missed and what people see from outside will probably only reinforce traditional negative stereotypes of transport museums. With its regimented rows of out-of-context buses, delivery vehicles, coaches and petrol tankers, the gallery feels more like a high-class museum store than a visitor-oriented display.

The gallery seems too small for its contents and the vehicles are so tightly packed that it is impossible to appreciate the impressive collection to the full. Two of the vehicles are completely inaccessible. On the day of my visit, a visitor in a wheelchair had to be satisfied with viewing one end of the vehicles, while his companion squeezed between other vehicles for a closer look. This space seems to be falling between two stools - it neither provides context or interactivity for general visitors, nor opportunities to examine the vehicles up close or access more detailed information for enthusiasts.

In contrast, the circular motorcycle gallery, while still displaying rows of vehicles, is more welcoming and uses film and music to create a sense of the excitement of being on the open road. Classic film clips featuring iconic stars such as Elvis Presley, Clint Eastwood, Marlon Brando and Steve McQueen riding motorcycles will appeal to the non-enthusiast and emphasise the importance of the motorcycle in popular culture.

A turntable in the centre of the gallery and the partial reconstruction of a bikers' cafe, complete with a jukebox and a table at which visitors can sit alongside an abandoned motorcycle helmet, leather jacket and disconcertingly realistic English breakfast, lift the gallery above the ordinary.

For many people, the Landmarques gallery will be the highlight of their visit. Here vehicles are displayed within the context of atmospheric recreated streets complete with houses, shops, mannequins, sounds and smells. The displays not only give visitors a glimpse of developments in Coventry's transport industry from the Victorian era to the second world war, but also reflect the social history of the city. And they are engaging and rich enough for repeat visitors to keep finding something new.

The gallery also features the Roxy cinema, where visitors can find out about the industry by watching two silent films. A useful activity space for school sessions and other events should help to promote the museum as a 'must-see' attraction for local schools.

The Blitz Experience is the gallery's finale - visitors are encouraged to walk through the space following choreographed lights and narration that bring to life a sequence of scenes. While this works well if visitors arrive at the right time, it can be frustrating and frighteningly dark for those who do not.

Overall, I enjoyed Landmarques, but I found the gallery-filling narration and period dialogue too dominating at times, and the use of large high-tech plasma screens within the historic reconstructions was occasionally incongruous. While I applaud the use of the screens to provide accessible contextual information, and in particular the use of on-screen signers, I wonder whether the ever-present Star Starley, a Lara Croft-like animated character who speaks directly to visitors and escorts them through their visit, will stand the test of time.

The new education centre and archive show the museum's commitment to lifelong learning. The well-equipped, spacious education centre includes three learning rooms and the 'Technocentre', with 15 networked PCs, gives the museum the capacity to expand its learning programmes in the future. With its glass wall onto the galleries, the centre has put learning visibly at the heart of the museum, and activities include community-oriented programmes such as pre-school sessions and beginners' computer courses for adults.

The archive is equally impressively equipped and includes new conservation systems, houses the museum's library of sales literature and catalogues, its technical collection and photography - some 1 million items in total. These are in the process of being researched and catalogued. Public access to its new reading room, complete with wireless computer network, will be by appointment.

There is no doubt that these developments are taking the museum in the right direction. The museum's impressive collection, which features the largest number of British road transport artefacts in the world, deserves to be presented to a high standard and made engaging and accessible to the widest audience.

It would be good to see more interactivity and representation of diversity in the galleries, and I was surprised that the museum is not making more use of oral history - the subject matter is crying out for it.

But taken as a whole, the museum has something for everyone, from families to enthusiasts. And as its publicity material says, there's something different around every corner.

Alison Porter is a museum learning consultant

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