View of a white train car and red tube carriage in a large depot

Shaping the future (and making lemonade)

By Elizabeth McKay, Chief Operating Officer

I’ve been thinking about a poster I had as a child that exhorted, When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, and how appropriate it is for the challenges we’re all facing with the pandemic. What this proverbial expression encapsulates is the optimism that you can think your way out of a problem, find solutions, create something new that can be transformative and better, in short, to innovate.

We all know the pandemic has been massively disruptive and absolutely devastating to many, and we’re only starting to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of business closures and unemployment. The cultural sector has been hit particularly hard. However, the creative sector is also incredibly resilient and full of can-do people who are adept at problem-solving and overcoming barriers. Ask any creative person to describe a good brief and invariably you’ll hear that it had a clearly articulated problem or barrier to address.

White enamel sign with red disc and black lettering reading No Entry
Direction sign ca. 1930, London Transport Museum Collection

Forced closures, social distancing measures and visitor anxiety about travelling and being around other people are all pretty big barriers. London Transport Museum has been closed since the middle of March and we’ve only had a small team working and grappling with how we overcome these barriers and get our beloved Museum open and activity back on track. We’ve been learning from colleagues in other creative organisations and have drawn inspiration from some of their approaches too. We’ve noticed that the really savvy players are pushing forward with innovation in areas of strategic importance.

Three people standing apart form each other inside the empty Museum

Accelerating the shift to digital

Many of us enjoyed the vast amount of high-quality digital content that was made available when museums and theatres closed their doors. It was the sector’s way of staying alive and reaching out to our visitors and audiences. National Theatre at Home every Thursday, #MuseumAtHome on social media, Hamilton on Disney+, the Metropolitan Opera streaming whole operas every night… It was a wealth of content to audiences hungry to connect.  London Transport Museum’s online shop and social media channels thrived.

It was clear this explosion of content wasn’t sustainable, it was difficult to monetise when so much was free, and what is proving interesting now is the new approaches that are emerging.  The Tenement Museum in New York followed up its free content with the launch of ‘private virtual events’ starting at $300.

We have developed Hidden London Hangouts a free offer on YouTube which has attracted viewers from around the world. We’re now following up with a new experience to let our fans become active participants with a monthly membership on the Patreon platform.

Re-inventing and re-imagining live experiences

Never underestimate the sheer determination for creative people to find a solution. The Minack Theatre in Cornwall re-opened its summer season with a two-person show and ushers that used a 2m stick to seat groups as they arrived with socially distanced gaps. Andrew Lloyd Webber staged a pilot performance with Beverly Knight at The London Palladium to prove that socially distanced live music is possible. The ENO is performing opera at a drive-in theatre, with the audience in their cars.

An outdoor theatre perched on the sea with spectators sitting around the arena
The Minack Theatre

We knew that our visitors were anxious about public transportation and being inside closed spaces, so we created a new experience at our large Museum Depot in Acton, utilising outside space and attracting a local audience.

A woman and two children riding n a miniature train
Families enjoying a ride on our London Transport Miniature Railway

The personal touch

Personalisation has been a buzz word for ages and the importance of having a genuine personal connection and relationship has never been more important. I’ve tried to get out to visit as many museums, gardens and attractions as possible, and the ones that have excelled have had cheerful and helpful front of house staff and personal follow-up. The personal welcome and farewell in person made the difference. I loved my trip to the Eden Project, Tate and Kew Gardens – but it was the welcome at the Tate as I struggled with two children and face mask, and the chat with the Visitor Services Manager at the Eden which made my visit a delight. And why I’m happy to keep up my memberships.

Landscape including trees in the foreground and five large green houses resembling hives
The Eden Project in Cornwall

We’ve been putting a lot of energy into the staff training and ‘re-acclimatising’ for those who have been on furlough. We’re really heartened that our first wave of visitor feedback from the Depot family summer season shows how important and appreciated our friendly staff are.

Two women wearing a protective clear visor sitting in front of a red double decker bus

Prioritising the important stuff

Right now there are so many ideas and possibilities – the challenge is focusing on the right things for a near term lift and long term gain. We’ve been impressed by the innovation that moves in the direction of the bigger aspirations. The overarching goal of the Mayor’s Transport Strategy is that by 2032, 80% of journeys are to be made by walking, cycling or public transport. They’ve used the time during lockdown to expand cycle lanes and widen pavements which accelerates the realisation of the goal. This is the kind of innovation that is truly inspiring.

A man and a woman stand with their bikes in Covent Garden Piazza with London Transport Museum in the background

At London Transport Museum, we’re thinking a lot about prioritising the right stuff to ensure our future funding and income. In the short term, we’ve launched a fundraising appeal, and we’re focused on getting the doors open on 7 September 2020, fast-tracking our digital offers, re-inventing live experiences to attract new visitors and delivering exceptional customer service. Longer term we know we need to reach new audiences and re-invent our successful business model to deliver our purpose of igniting curiosity to shape the future.

We know it’s a rocky road ahead but we are committed to overcoming the barriers, gathering up the lemons and using the alchemy of our creative people and opportunities to make lemonade.

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