Minding the Gap – London Transport Museum

Home to nearly ten million people, London is the largest city in the United Kingdom (UK). Not only this but it’s recorded that over 21 million people visited the capital city from overseas in 2019. Getting about a city as populated as this and that spans over 1,572 miles (that’s bigger than New York City by the way!) would be incredibly difficult if it wasn’t for London’s expansive and well-established transport systems and networks. London Transport Museum (LTM) is home to a huge collection of London’s historic and contemporary transport vehicles, signage and typeface, artworks, posters, and personal objects related to the many social histories connected to these important transport systems.

One of the forms of engagement that LTM utilises is the popular Depot Tours which lift the curtain on rarely seen objects in the Museum Depot in Acton Town and give an insight into the daily care and storage of museum collections. Miranda Schiller, Public Programmes Executive at London Transport Museum, kindly contributed to this article by explaining in detail this specific tour programme; in particular, highlighting the work of the volunteer tour guides who co-create and deliver these engaging and informative tours. In doing this, this article helps demonstrate the value of investing in volunteers, both in terms of delivering engaging learning programming but also in relation to the wider organisational benefits it can provide.

London Transport Museum and the Museum Depot

Two sites belong to the LTM. The main museum in Covent Garden is where LTM welcomes the majority of its visitors, hosts its exhibitions and facilitates school and other educational visits. The Museum Depot is in Acton and is the principal place for the storage of its impressive collection of objects related to transport in London, although a range of learning and community programmes also take place at the site. Here many members of staff and volunteers work on and care for these objects. The site is used for special events as well as the Depot Tours which are accessed through a booking system. You can learn more about London Transport Museum’s collection by watching the short LTM produced film: ‘Explore London Transport Museum’s collection’. See the end of the article for links.

The exterior view of the main entrance to London Transport Museum (Image courtesy of London Transport Museum)

Depot Tours

The Depot Tours are comprehensive both in areas and content covered. There’s a selection of three tours to choose from: ‘Depot discovery’, ‘Art and posters’ and ‘Design icons’. These tours are led by a volunteer tour guide and typically last two hours, except for ‘Art and posters’ which usually lasts an hour and a half. All of these timings include space for questions.

A view of the section of the Museum Depot that is used to store disused London Underground cars (Image courtesy of London Transport Museum)

‘Depot discovery’

This is essentially a tour that gives the participant a general overview of the Museum Depot. As the name suggests, it’s an opportunity to discover areas of the site and collection that the participant has likely never seen before. Although not officially part of the tour, sometimes museum staff and volunteers are seen working hard at cleaning and maintaining some of the vehicles in this expansive collection.

A volunteer tour guide delivers the ‘Depot Discovery’ tour in the bus section (Image courtesy of London Transport Museum)

‘Art and posters’

The ‘Art and posters’ tour takes you into the Art and Poster Store where the vast collection of transport posters and some of the original artworks that were made for them are held. 

Participants of the ‘Art and posters’ tour receiving an explanation of the historical context of a transport poster within the Art and Poster Store (Image courtesy of London Transport Museum)

‘Design icons’

The ‘Design icons’ tour covers aspects of the design of London transport, as well as many of the logos from the tube stations and the typefaces of signs for example. It’s similar to the ‘Art and posters’ tour, but different in the fact that ‘Design icons’ places more emphasis on the design history of such objects.

An assortment of London Underground station signs at the Museum Depot (Image courtesy of London Transport Museum)

Behind the scenes

All three of the Depot Tours offer something unique; to get a behind the scenes look at objects not usually on display. At the Museum Depot, you might assume that the building is less accessible for the general visitor and if this was any other museum’s collection store you would probably be right. However, the Museum Depot was specifically designed with public access in mind and is in fact the first collection store of its kind to be built in this way in the UK. For example, relevant station and platform signage has been displayed to align with the building’s railroads to give visitors a sense of being on working platforms, the bus line-up conveys a sense of chronology and change through time with the horse buses and Chocolate Express starting the line-up with later vehicles leading on from this, and similar thought has gone into the display of the signs and maps. The maps range from some of the earliest through to the more modern designs so visitors can see the evolution of the network as well as the changing design stylings of the Underground Electric Railways Company of London (UERL) and London Transport. The Depot Tours are therefore unique in the fact that they are made accessible not just due to the experienced and knowledgeable volunteer tour guide but also because of visitor-centric functionality and design of the Museum Depot.

Appealing too is the opportunity to witness museum practices and processes while on the tour. This is something that can be really eye-opening to visitors. That isn’t to say that the general public or those who don’t work in museums have no idea about what goes on in a museum but it wouldn’t be too controversial to claim that behind the exhibitions, museums can be fairly mysterious places. For example, Miranda recalled how one participant was shocked at how cold it was in one of the stores. She explained to the participant that the temperature is deliberately kept low in order to maintain the integrity of the collections. Tours such as these can therefore help shine a light on some of the work that museum professionals and volunteers dedicate their careers to, giving the participant a deeper understanding of museum practice. This could in turn help with promoting a positive attitude towards museums as valuable organisations within our society, organisations that need proper support, especially in terms of funding. The tours are therefore much more than an opportunity to showcase unseen collections, they’re an opportunity for LTM to sell itself to its audiences, to prove that like many other museums, it’s an organisation that has tremendous cultural and educational value to society.

Who goes on these tours and why?

Being aware of the diverse nature of the LTM’s visitors, the audiences of these tours can be defined into two main categories; public and groups. Within the public offer, the Depot Tours are generally catered to anyone and everyone with no particular type of person in mind. However, there’s a large proportion of the audience of these tours that could be classified as ‘transport enthusiasts’, those who really have a keen interest in London’s transport history and/or engineering history. There are also those participants who attend in search of something different, for a day out which may differ from their usual interests.

A range of different groups makes up the main customer base for the group offer. Some groups include organisations that want their staff to go on a day out together and get away from the office; others include lifelong learning groups. One of such groups is the u3a (university of the third age). The u3a is a life-long learning organisation aimed at those no longer in full-time work, those in the ‘third age’ of life, a time where one may engage with learning for learning’s sake. It facilitates life-long learning through experiences with art, culture and heritage. Importantly, it’s guided by the interests of its members. The organisation’s members in London are particularly fond of London Transport Museum and the various Depot Tours at the site in Acton Town. However, they’re just one example of how people interested in lifelong learning gravitate towards these tours.

A collaborative approach

The volunteer tour guides don’t simply offer a service of leading tours, they’re responsible for shaping the content as well. There’s a framework that is provided to the volunteer tour guides by the curators, which helps give the guides some guidance on what areas to cover, suggested questions, facts, and recommended points of interest. This too helps give the tours a similar structure and format so different participants don’t receive wildly different experiences. Despite this, the volunteer tour guides are allowed a considerable extent of artistic freedom to modify and tailor the tour to their own interests and knowledge. In doing this, tours are created and delivered, best utilising the tour guides’ own passion in a particular area of the collection.

This collaborative process doesn’t come without its challenges, however. The curators, like most museum professionals, are incredibly busy with many different tasks and duties. Many of the volunteer tour guides are also involved in other museum projects, such as restoration work, or driving heritage buses, and know the collection really well. They often have great suggestions for things to change or be rearranged at the Depot to improve tours, but don’t always understand the constraints or reasons why some things are not possible or take longer than expected. Miranda therefore, has to ensure that questions and suggestions from the guides are passed on to the curators and also to manage the guides’ expectations while ensuring they know that they are valued and that their insight is important.

The value of volunteers

Like many museums, LTM relies on its volunteers to increase engagement, reach new audiences and contribute to the daily operation of the museum as well as its long term viability as an organisation. In fact, LTM volunteers annually contribute to approximately 22,000 hours of volunteering time. With a possible 47 different roles that a volunteer can undertake, a tour guide is just one example of some of the amazing work that these people do. Some of the volunteer tour guides are local people that simply have a keen interest in the museum’s unique collection but many of the tour guides have formerly worked in London’s extensive transport system as bus or tube drivers for example. The benefits of this to the museum’s programming is more obvious than one of London’s famous bright red buses; the use of volunteer tour guides enables the museum to provide tours where the tour guide can contribute their own lived experiences to the tour. Commenting on the unique place volunteers hold both at LTM and the wider sector, Miranda stated that:

“Volunteers are at a really interesting intersection because they’re an audience, but then they are also part of the museum. However, at the same time, they’re not museum staff. They hold this really interesting and really valuable hybrid position within the museum.”

Volunteers don’t just help bridge that connection between the museum and its audiences, they are that bridge. They hold a unique position where they are both part of the museum and part of the audience. Who better to know what the audience wants than the audience itself?

Feeling that same spark

We all remember that one teacher in school who made us absolutely love going to that class and learning about a particular subject. For me it was History and if it wasn’t for such a passionate and engaging teacher it’s completely possible that I may have dropped the subject and not gone on to study it at a university level. The point I’m trying to make here is that people can inspire and captivate you in something that you haven’t necessarily been interested in before. Miranda touched on this by explaining how many of the tour guides are talented in taking some niche aspect of the collection, such as trams for example, and using it to paint a picture and tell a story which leaves you questioning why it took you so many years of your life to realise how amazing trams are! She explained how:

“Everyone likes to hear someone talk about something that they’re really passionate about even if you yourself have never shared that same passion. As a member of the tour group, listening to someone tell you facts about the technological aspects of trams as well as the interesting social histories connected to trams can really make you feel that same spark too.”

Of course, no one’s saying that curators and other members of staff don’t have this passion too and are unable to convey this to tour participants but you have to appreciate the dedication, interest and love these volunteers have for the collection when they’re so willingly committed to dedicating their free time and labour to the museum.

Finding a balance

Each tour group can have different interests and levels of knowledge, so as a tour guide it can be really challenging to find that balance between the different participants. For instance, how can you keep a tour engaging for someone who only really cares for the social history of transport in London as opposed to someone who wants to get into the fine technological and engineering details of how a bus engine works? Indeed, Miranda noted that while this is a challenge it really is also where the extent of the capabilities of the volunteer tour guides shine:

“The tour guides usually adapt to the group really well, depending on what interests or knowledge they’ve got and then they respond to that. Obviously, however, in a mixed group, there can be the challenge of catering to people with different interests. The tour guides then have to find the balance of ensuring that all participants are getting what they want out of the tour.”

Those of us who are used to delivering tours in museum environments know that there’s no textbook answer that can be applied here. However, one of the methods employed by the tour guides at LTM is to ensure that enough conversation and dialogue is facilitated, especially through the use of questions. This can help create an experience where all of the participants’ views are valued.

Adapting to changing circumstances

The Covid-19 pandemic has pretty much forced all of us to change the way we work in some capacity and the same is definitely true for the volunteer tour guides at LTM. Like many museums, LTM was closed for many months during the worst parts of the country’s experience with the pandemic and even when the museum has been able to reopen, the volunteer tour guides have been unable to deliver their tours due to social distancing rules. However, Miranda gave the volunteers the option to produce content digitally in place of their usual in-person guided tours. Some of the volunteers were hesitant to contribute due to their perceived incapability to work using technology, but Miranda and her team were pleased when so many of these volunteers gave it a go and produced really high quality and engaging digital content in the form of blog posts and videos. The key here was assuring the volunteers that they don’t necessarily need to be good with technology, the Marketing team could assist with that, but what they did need is that same interest and passion for the collection that they bring to their in-person Depot Tours. Miranda summed this up by saying:

“We made it very clear that they don’t need to know about social media, they just need to know about, for example, a poster and they could simply either write a blog post or make a video and there are some really amazing videos that are really well made. I was just so impressed.”

The point to take from this then is that volunteers aren’t, for want of a better phrase, a one-trick pony. They are enthusiasts in their own right, with a strong connection to the collection and an even stronger desire to form new connections with others around them. Facilitating different projects for volunteers to work on can therefore benefit the museum’s programming but also the personal development of the volunteers. If you’d like to see an example of how a volunteer tour guide adapted their work during lockdown, make sure to have a read of Nick Gill’s blog post ‘On the Surface – London by bus and river’. You can find the link at the end of this article.

Concluding thoughts…

The ‘Depot Tours’ are not only a fantastic form of visitor engagement; they’re also a great form of volunteer engagement. The ‘behind the scenes’ look at a collection and museum practice is usually always popular with visitors and in turn can help promote the work and value of museum professionals and volunteers, LTM and the wider museum sector’s place in society. Developing tours collaboratively between curators and volunteer tour guides can enable for a ‘best of both worlds’ situation in which the volunteers’ passion and dedication to particular areas are moulded and guided by the professional expertise of the curator in relation to the wider collection, organisational values and visitor engagement. However, this isn’t necessarily an easy marriage, as the curators’ responsibilities are naturally far more divided than that of the volunteers. Special attention, therefore, needs to be paid to ensure that the curators can make the time for such projects but just as importantly the volunteers are reassured that their time and effort is appreciated even if the project takes a little longer to complete than expected. Indeed, volunteers hold a particular position within museums. They are both an audience and part of the museum, meaning they are able to offer a unique point of view when it comes to engagement. They are also able to inspire and captivate due to their passion and enthusiasm for the collection and subject area. As a result, they are likely to be able to adapt to changing circumstances if given appropriate modes of support from museum staff. It’s clear then that wherever the tracks may lead for LTM, volunteers will be there to support the museum on its journey.

Thank you to Miranda Schiller for her contribution to the research of this article. If you have any questions about the tour programme you can contact her at: miranda.schiller@ltmuseum.co.uk 

On special occasions, the Museum Depot is opened to the public for events and Open Weekends offering family activities, demonstrations and mini-talks. Sign-up to the Museum’s newsletter to be the first to know about new event dates.

The Depot tours are due to run again from October and dates are currently on sale up to April 2022 but will be running regularly throughout the year. For more information regarding the tours and specific dates please see the links below.

Useful links:

A question for you…

Do you have any experience in volunteering within a tour programme or have managed volunteers within a similar programme? If so, have there been any challenges you’ve faced in doing this?

Feel free to answer in the comment box below.

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: