Driven to Write speaks to the man helping to future-proof the British Motor Museum for future generations – Director of Operations, Jeff Coope.
Ensuring the past continues to address the future is a challenge all museums face – to remain relevant they must evolve, or die. Jeff Coope is the man at the sharp end. Having overseen the transformation of what was known as the ‘Heritage Motor Centre’ into today’s British Motor Museum, his ambitions for the facility go much further.
The current purpose built facility at Gaydon was formally opened in 1993, but despite being supported by industry donations and from the British Motor Industry Heritage Trust, it struggled to sustain itself financially. When Coope joined as part of a new management team in 2002, the situation was critical.
“When we took the museum on, it was losing a lot of money, needing over £1m a year in donations to keep it going. Just think if we didn’t get that, this whole enterprise and all that history may not be here now. So our job really was to change all that in the shortest possible time.”
With a five year break-even plan to establish its own commercial output, new MD, Julie Tew, Jeff and his small team needed to find a robust revenue stream. They already had a small-scale conference business on site, and it quickly became apparent this was their route to sustainability. “Our remit was – ‘think of yourselves not getting any donations in three years – what would you have to do?’ They actually gave us five years but we cut it down to three ourselves. It certainly focused the mind. We changed the conference business into a proper professionally operated conference centre. We added rooms, we added capacity, we added nice food menus that people could upgrade to, we brought catering in-house and started to push really big events. We did all these things and sitting here now we’re in a place where we’re talking about building another 5000 sq metre building. 15 years ago, we couldn’t have even dreamed about this.”
Making the museum self sustaining was vital to the collection’s long term future, but you still have to get visitors through the door. The next phase was more ambitious. Re-invention. Enter the main museum building today and it’s a vibrant, bright space full of interactive consoles and information centres. Cars sit on giant plinths made to resemble old Dinky toy boxes; the displays are playful, engaging and the very opposite of the slightly stuffy manner in which things were once presented.
“Its our front of house and everything is staged because it has to be. We’re trying to appeal to the widest audience to showcase this fantastic industry and the best way of doing that is not just to the people who already appreciate it – the enthusiasts, but to make sure the people who wouldn’t normally have thought of the automotive industry to say; ‘come and have a look at this, it’s really interesting!’ You’re telling a story!”
The issue of course is that by trying to cater to the broadest audience, you can alienate the core visitor, the enthusiast. Coope and his team came up with a novel way of engaging with this group of visitors – a very different display of vehicles, housed in an entirely new £4.2 m building. “We always had this vast array of cars, our ‘Reserve Collection’, some of which had never been seen by the public. So rather than having them tucked away we thought we should put it all out there but in a wholly different manner.”
The aim behind the new building was simplicity itself as Jeff makes clear. “When I spoke to Terry Lee, our architect, I said, ‘I want a shed and I want it to drape over the cars, but I want the cars to be the star, not your shed!’ Because it’s completely see-through, you can see from one fully-glazed gable end to the other. I think the architecture is genius because it’s so simple. It’s like the ribs of a ship when you’re in the hold – you see the skin of the building, you can see the mechanics working, and the cars being driven. It’s just won the 2016 RICS architecture award for the West Midlands.”
With their new ‘shed’, the museum has two alternate approaches to the viewing public, the family orientated front of house, and what was called the ‘reserve collection’ appealing more to hardcore enthusiasts. Built over two levels – the ground floor housing the permanent Jaguar Heritage collection – with the core BMIHT collection on an upper mezzanine level giving visitors a clear view down into the workshop bays below where on any given day several of the collection’s priceless exhibits are kept in rude health.
“It’s giving enthusiasts something much more akin to what they were looking for; ‘tell me something interesting Jeff, not something I’ve already seen before’, and its in the raw which I love. You’re not spending money on plinths and AV’s, you can look at the engineering details and smell them. We fire the cars up over there and you can hear them.”
But best laid plans can sometimes go somewhat awry because not everybody immediately grasped the trust’s new vision with initial customer feedback on the new building being one of confusion. “It allowed us to put a different thing to the public – backstage if you like. I think a lot of people really appreciated that, whereas the families came away a little… disappointed – at least in the early days before we got the message over. Because they were thinking ‘it’s not as good as the museum is it?’ But it isn’t a museum, and we wondered what we’d done wrong calling it our Museum’s Collection Centre. So we renamed it simply the ‘Collection Centre’ dropping the museum prefix to avoid confusion. When you’re walking towards it and you see the cars glimpsed through the windows, it’s a glamorous building, so there must be a glamorous interior, but actually its very austere – concrete floors, glass – very basic. The cars aren’t on plinths and there’s no AV’s to help you navigate through, but when you get the message over, they do get it. But you don’t have to tell the enthusiasts twice, they love it – a shed full of cars – that’s what they want to see!”
A further change is that the entire facility is no longer the rather amorphous sounding ‘Heritage Motor Centre’, it’s been renamed as the ‘British Motor Museum. Something that has been transformative not just in nomenclature terms, but in public perception terms too. “Actually changing the name worked fantastically well for us. We’re home to the BMIHT which represents not just Jaguar LandRover, but the entire British motor industry. We’ve got many of the marques represented – if you’ve built a car in Britain, hopefully, it will be represented in this museum. We’ve even got a Toyota down there!”
But for Jeff and the team at the museum, commercial realities must underpin everything they do. “You have to make it pay, otherwise it will disappear, and as a trust, I’d say we’re pretty successful in our commercial operations. With our conference centre we have to compete with companies for whom this is their sole business. We have to be as good as those people and I think we are because we get a lot of repeat business. Okay the museum probably helps a little, because it’s quite a hook isn’t it? Even if you’re not interested in cars, it’s not like looking at vacuum cleaners. Cars are really personal aren’t they? Everybody’s got a favourite.”
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