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Motoring heritage

21 December, 2007

Coventry was once the centre of the British motor industry, and hosts the Coventry Transport Museum, which, in spite of its all-embracing name, holds an extensive collection of motor vehicles built in Coventry.

Nearby are the collections of the National Motorcycle Museum near Birmingham Airport, and the Heritage Motor Museum at Gaydon.

I recently gave a paper called Motor heritage vs. Motoring heritage – the case for a rethink at a conference in Riga, and am continuing my research in this vein. The thrust of my argument is that these three heritage centres, and indeed all similar centres, are far too preoccupied with presenting motor heritage, as evidenced by an obsession with the vehicles themselves. They focus on the fast and the unusual. They offer little interpretation of the vehicles as part of a broader social heritage. I find this odd on two grounds:

  • It ignores the very significant role that motor vehicles in the shaping of the twentieth century.
  • It results in sterile displays that appeal mainly to middle-aged petrolheads. The centres offer little to make themselves attractive to a family group of visitors.

    Sadly, this results in a lose-lose scenario.

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    3 comments

    1. Having read your article “Motoring Heritage” I take issue with your broad brush comment about a lack of interpretation and in particular regarding Coventry Transport Museum. This Museum portrays the motoring heritage of the City of Coventry in a visually informative way using a great deal of interpretation, video footage, story telling and informmation panels. It clearly provides the visitor with a vast arrary of information about the social heritage surrounding Coventry’s motoring industry from the early days of cycle manufacture right up to modern day transport concepts. The resulting displays are far from “sterile” so i can only assume that you have not visited this particular Museum since it was re-opened in April 2007 following a significant refurbishment and expansion programme.


    2. Mr Beech
      I can only assume from your comments that you have only looked through the doors of Coventry Transport Museum! If you have ever taken the time to visit this fascinating venue you will discover that the Transport Museum celebrates Coventry’s place in automotive history in the UK and its founders. Not only does the collection include cars, there are also cycles and motorcycles from a number of eras, not solely the fast or unusual as you state. Two galleries in particular celebrate the social impact of transport, being both the landmarks gallery and boomtown, the latter of which emphasises the effect the growing motor industry had on Coventry at the time.
      I also take issue with your description of the displays as sterile, when visiting the Museum I have seen children of all ages interacting with the displays and exhibits and enjoying them fully. You may not be aware that the Transport Museum is in fact the most visited attraction in Coventry and has tremendously good visitor feedback, if you read the visitor book you’d find this out for yourself. Can I suggest that your research includes actual visits to the places you mention – rather than making blinkered comments and before you treat them with such distain?


    3. First of all, I should make clear that I have visited the Coventry Transport Museum on many an occasion, both before and since the major refurbishment. None of these visits has been short. In my research I have visited many motor museums, from the Haynes Motor Museum to the Highland Motor Heritage Centre, and as far afield as York, Western Australia; ironically, I chose to mention the three that are local to me simply to contextualise my research interest – Coventry the Car City.
      I also have practitioner experience, having co-owned and operated an award-winning transport heritage centre.
      The comments by gary356 and kizzy76 seem to have been provoked by my use of the word ‘sterile’, so perhaps I can clarify this.
      By ‘sterile’ I mean that the displays lack a vital (in both senses of the word) dimension; they lack a contextualisation in the real world that the general public inhabits. To me, motor heritage centres, unlike motoring heritage centres, are like watch museums that simply display watches but fail to relate them to time and how time is important to us.
      In the parallel world of railway heritage, compare any motor heritage centre with a) the National Railway Museum in York and b) any preserved steam railway. The former does an excellent job in presenting the major items of material culture in its scope – locomotives and carriages – but the latter present both a live experience and reflect railways rather than just locomotives and carriages. Excellent though the National Railway Museum undoubtedly is, it is sterile when compared with the experience of visiting a live steam railway.
      The thrust of my argument – and, if it is a criticism, it is one which applies to all similar motor heritage centres, as I made clear in my original posting – is that these centres place an enormous emphasis on ‘motor’, with an abundance of vehicles, at the expense of ‘motoring’. What they do, they do very well, but they fail to present a balanced view of the phenomenon of motoring. My argument is that by concentrating on vehicles – the sheer number of vehicles, almost in serried ranks, is the main impression that strikes a visitor to a motor heritage centre, any motor heritage centre – the other dimensions of motoring are being neglected. These dimensions include the supplier of raw materials, the manufacturer, the builder, the distributor, the purchaser, the driver, the servicer and the enthusiast. To this list of those directly involved with vehicles can be the external dimensions: the car and fashion; the car in culture; the car as status symbol; the car in leisure; the motor industry’s contribution to the war effort; and the car and the environment. Most motor heritage centres can claim that most of these dimensions are present – I would accept that, but I would argue that they are badly under-represented in the displays. Motor heritage as a collection of vehicles is sterile when compared to the possibilities of presenting full-blown motoring heritage.
      A lot lies in a name, and I am still puzzled as to why the British Museum of Road Transport chose to rebrand itself as the Coventry Transport Museum. Personally I would like to see it become a British centre for motoring heritage, but that would involve more than rebranding.
      “Tremendously good visitor feedback” and being the most visited attraction in Coventry are, of course, highly creditable, but this feedback does not tell you anything about those who chose not to visit. I believe that, with a broader approach on motoring heritage rather than on motor heritage, these numbers could be significantly higher while still maintaining the very positive feedback. This applies to most motor heritage centres, which currently make relatively little use of their archives, for example – a resource which is of particular significance in this age where funding is always under pressure. You have the broader material culture already – why not make more of it?
      Dr John Beech
      (who has now had the pleasure of a personal guided tour with gary356 aka Gary Hall, recently appointed Chief Executive of Coventry Transport Museum. There have been changes since my last visit, in September, and more are planned under Gary’s stewardship. I will have less to complain about in the future!)



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