How a £9.5m facelift has injected new pride, passion and panache into one of the world’s great transport collections
When Gary Hall first came to Coventry he recalls the whole city “felt a bit doom and gloom” about what had happened to its motor industry over the years. “The place seemed really down,” he says. “But when I looked around the Transport Museum for the first time it struck me what a fantastic, exciting story there was to tell and what a terrific future the place had.” That was back in 2007 after Gary had given up life in the aviation and airports business and become Coventry Transport Museum’s chief executive. “I had a vision of what the museum could be, and now these years later we’ve finally realised that.” The museum relaunched in June with a completely new look, layout and exhibits after a massive facelift which aims to lift visitor numbers from just over 400,000 a year to topping half a million… and beyond. The new place certainly looks the part. Inside it’s slick, smart, stylish and bang up to date with what visitors expect today. In fact the word ‘museum’ somehow feels out of place – it’s more of ‘an experience’ which guides you through the city’s past, present and future with real panache and pride.
As well as housing the biggest collection of British transport in the world, it is one of only two that tells the story of transport made in that city – the other is Ford’s heritage centre in Detroit. And as Gary is quick to point out, that only features one make while Coventry boasts a host of the greatest-ever manufacturers. “The museum is now firmly at the forefront of the world stage,” said Gary. “The old museum had many fine elements and qualities but was a bit random in how they were displayed and explained to the public. Now it guides people through the story of the amazing history and ties Coventry has with the motor industry and transport and also tells the story of the city itself. It’s an engaging and exciting experience for the visitor.” Engagement is key to what Gary and his team are trying to achieve – whether it’s with regular visitors coming through the doors or by the programme with local schools and links to Coventry and Warwick Universities. “The story in the new museum starts as it should from the beginning,” he explained, “with the cycle industry and works its way through motorcycles, cars and all the other vehicles, both in peacetime and wartime, that are synonymous with the city, and then on to what is coming in the future.” The project to make the museum a must-see free attraction for the Midlands took 15 months to complete at a cost of £9.5million. The revamp has seen 13 of the galleries undergo major makeovers as well as other attractions updated and added to, with previously unseen vehicles taken out of storage and featured in the new displays.
The collection includes the world’s fastest cars Thrust SSC and Thrust 2 as well as the oldest vehicle manufactured in the city and more than 3,000 model toy cars. Latest technology has been introduced to bring to life Coventry’s war effort in the Blitz Experience, while the Future Pioneers section showcases design and innovation from a host of local companies at the forefront of the transport and automotive industry. “There are over 1,000 local companies all making niche products for transport,” said Gary. “It is important that we reflect that and show our visitors what a thriving and innovative city and region we have.” The museum opened in 1980 when the road transport collection outgrew the space it occupied in the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum. The museum’s current collection of vehicles includes more than 550 cars – from the early days of the first motorised vehicle to the latest F1 race machines – motorcycles and bicycles and 25,000 models. It’s all managed by the Culture Coventry charitable trust formed in 2013 and bringing together four of Coventry’s finest museums and visitor attractions – the Transport Museum, Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, the Lunt Roman Fort (a fully excavated and partially reconstructed turf and timber fort), and the Priory Visitor Centre, where you can explore the excavated remains of Coventry’s first cathedral. The Culture Coventry attractions are visited by more than 800,000 people from around the world each year. Despite the economic challenges facing galleries and museums of all shapes and sizes across the country, Coventry Transport Museum is in the best shape of its 30-year history. “We’ve had lots of really positive feedback about the new features,” said Gary. “A number of people have told me that what we have created is truly world-leading and we are very proud of that as a team, a museum and a city.”