Mysteries revealed

[wlm_nonmember]
News stories are free to read. Click here for full access to all the features, articles and archive from only £8.99.
[/wlm_nonmember]

During the coronavirus pandemic, Greater Manchester’s Museum of Transport has been active on social media to ensure it remains in the public eye once restrictions are eased. Jonathan Welch speaks to volunteers to find out how the museum has coped in a difficult year

Up and down the country, museums of all types, along with the wider tourism and leisure sector, have been doing what they can to keep active during the annus horribilis that has been 2020. One which has stood out, and which has maintained an active and interesting presence across its social media is the Museum of Transport, Greater Manchester (MoTGM). Having started off during the first lockdown, the museum’s volunteers have kept up a running series of online posts every week, which have not only served to keep the museum in the public eye but have also been interesting and thought-provoking in themselves.

For some, a social media presence means an occasional Facebook status or Twitter update, but MoTGM has trawled its vast archives and with the help of volunteer Paul Williams, whose day job is Head of Communications for a pharmaceutical company, has been able to keep up an ongoing series of Mystery Mondays, Throwback Thursdays and Saturday Showoffs on Facebook and Twitter.

The museum is home to a varied collection of buses and transport memorabilia from the local area. JONATHAN WELCH
[wlm_nonmember][…]

Are you enjoying this feature? Why not subscribe to continue reading?

Subscribe for 6 issues/weeks from only £6
Or login if you are already a subscriber

By subscribing you will benefit from:

  • Operator & Supplier Profiles
  • Face-to-Face Interviews
  • Lastest News
  • Test Drives and Reviews
  • Legal Updates
  • Route Focus
  • Industry Insider Opinions
  • Passenger Perspective
  • Vehicle Launches
  • and much more!
[/wlm_nonmember] [wlm_ismember]

Creating a monster

I spoke to Paul to find out a little more about what goes into maintaining the social media accounts and keeping people interested. “We have had a social media presence for four years now,” he said. “We use Twitter and Facebook, which we find are reasonably engaging, and we have learned a lot from it. For example, we have found that photographs and video clips always get more engagement than text.

“Everyone likes looking at old images, we have found that no matter how interesting our content is, none goes down as well as ones which remind people of their childhood. People relate to what they remember.”

Paul explained that creating and looking after a social media presence is not as simple as just uploading something, and that it requires a lot of work in the background. “Creating a social media presence is like creating a monster,” he continued, “and that monster needs feeding. You have to hit the right balance between too many posts and not enough. Too many, and people feel like you are spamming them. Not enough and they forget about you.

“We post five times a week on Twitter and the same on Facebook. It is usually the same basic post on each platform, but we have learned that people who follow us on Twitter are different to those who use Facebook. With that in mind, we often amend the posts to suit the different platforms. Facebook users tend to be older and there for recreation rather than information. They don’t expect to get news from Facebook.

Demographics

“Twitter users tend to be younger, and be there looking for news or updates. There are lots of studies which say that Twitter is now a big way for people to find news. Twitter is more topical, and the character limit makes it more challenging. On Facebook, we can explore more.

“Social media is a content monster. We find that five posts a week is a happy balance, and we adjust the times of day to suit the user base on each platform. We find lots of people are using Twitter on their way to work in the mornings, whereas for Facebook we time our posts around lunchtime as that is when most people are active there.

“We don’t tweet or post live. We use a scheduling tool, it is quick and easy, and most scheduling services offer a limited number of posts for free. We are a charity so that is the right price for us! We have a ‘buffer’ of 10 posts in advance, so two weeks of posts in the pipeline ready to go. If something comes up quickly we can post on top of that. We have one scheduled for Monday at 0830hrs, but I don’t need to be in front of the computer as it is in the queue ready to go. For small organisations and operators it is a very useful tool to have available.”

Feeding the monster

Paul went on to explain how the idea for the different themes came about. “If you are doing five lots of two posts per week, you have to wonder ‘how are we going to think of five interesting posts a week?’ It needs a lot of inspiration and perspiration, so we came up with the idea of themes. That in turn creates expectation, and people will look forward to it each week. It means there is no need to think. We have thousands of pictures to choose from in our archives.”

Engagement

“Our levels of engagement on social media have typically been bigger that many big corporations,” continued Paul. “Generally brands consider themselves lucky if they get an engagement rate of 1% – that is, 1% of people interact with the post by clicking through or commenting. Our average is about 3.3%, or around one in 30 who click to interact further.

“We are lucky to both have a rich archive and to know our audience well, so we can target the message. We typically have between 2,000 and 10,000 views per day. Unfortunately I don’t have a magic bullet to know which will do well. Looking at last Sunday for example, there was no theme, I had just looked up on our timeline what happened on that date, and came up with the anniversary of Wigan Bus Station opening. We had copies of the official photos, and it got 11,000 hits on Twitter. It was just a picture of the entrance to the bus station. It almost defies logic. It depends a lot on who re-tweets it too. Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) is a very strong supporter and often shares our content. We do our bit in return and support them too – for example our recent posts featuring the ‘Do not spit’ notice on one of our buses.“

Stories, not buses

It is a phrase which is heard time and time again in numerous incarnations when talking about the bus industry, and there is no exception here when Paul explains that very often, it is the stories not the vehicles which capture people’s hearts and minds. “We have learned to make our content relatable,” he continued. “We like to post about someone or something which is relevant at a specific time. For example, around Remembrance Sunday we might post a story of a group of bus drivers who were in the Home Guard.”

Paul also explained the importance of being aware of what is going on in the wider heritage sector. “We track how we are doing against other similar organisations,” he said. “We don’t have as many followers as somewhere like the London Transport Museum but we are definitely up there with some of the big attractions.”

For all the work going on on social media though, besides providing entertainment online, it is important not to forget that a large part of the reason for maintaining a strong online presence is to ensure that people actually come and visit the museum. “Social media is our main conduit to communicate with the outside world. It’s our way to remind people that we still exist and to raise funds at a time when we cannot welcome visitors in person. We have raised thousands that we can directly trace to our social media efforts.

“We’re currently restoring our 1934 Crossley. The restoration has slowed down a lot because of Covid but we’ve been making occasional appeals which have led to donations through our fundraising page.”

Online shop

Other sources of funding have been vital to the museum too, and Paul was keen to highlight the museum’s new online shop at  www.motgmshop.uk which stocks a range of new and second hand books and models, as well as various other collectables and DVDs. However, he also stressed that as well as financial income through donations and sales, it is equally important that the museum stays on the radar of operators and other industry bodies, in the hope that when it comes to disposing of items they will think of the museum first. “We love donations from operators,” he said. “Whether it is redundant tools such as a panel creaser, or archives, we would like to issue a plea: please don’t throw it in a skip!

“We are always happy to strike up friendships with bus companies, and we also work closely to help local partners, for example requests to use our buses.” A good example of this was seen in CBW earlier this year, when Diamond Bus North West invited journalists and dignitaries to view its new fleet of Wrightbus Streetdeck double-deckers at its Bolton depot, and arranged for guests to be collected from the railway station in one of the museum’s heritage buses. “We love helping out – and in return ask that people bear us in mind, especially when it comes to tools and archives.”

As buses become ever more complicated, that plea will no doubt become even more important as museums and preservationists find themselves trying to restore and maintain buses which need plugging in to diagnostics equipment or laptop computers.

The museum itself

Although the museum remains closed to the public as a result of coronavirus, a small number of volunteers are able to continue working, thanks to the large building which is home to the collection of some 80-plus vehicles. Although the museum has a small number of part-time paid staff, it relies in the main on its small army of volunteers, with around 40 currently active, and has been entirely volunteer-run since opening in 1979. To find out a little more about the museum itself and what has been happening ‘on the shop floor’ behind its closed doors, I spoke to Dennis Talbot, the museum’s Chairman.

Dennis explained that the museum had been able to open briefly after the first lockdown. “I think we’ve been sensible about Covid,” he said. “We were open for six weeks, and everyone was really appreciative of the effort we made. People were ready with their masks as they arrived. We thought there may be some resistance but everyone was sensible and signed in as required.

“We had to think differently, modify the way we do some things. We couldn’t have one way systems as there are a lot of dead ends. We had extra volunteers on hand to help direct people and keep them separate: we normally just have three, but that increased to six including one to meet and greet, one in each hall, and to allow cover for breaks. We’ve found that people are doing the right thing. Most of our volunteers have still wanted to come in, unless they were shielding of course.”

In previous years, the museum has relied heavily on major events throughout the year. “We’d have all the buses out of the upper hall, and 180 stands inside,” said Dennis. “There could be 500 people here and we’d have queues for the catering. It will be a while before we can do events like that again. We were planning a 1960s event. In the end we managed to take a few of the buses out on the road; it was good to have them out, but we only managed to do that for one weekend before the second lock.”

Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, the museum was seeing visitor numbers of around 20,000 per year. “The pandemic has dented our income a lot,” said Dennis, “and a lot of our projects are on hold as we don’t want to spend money that we don’t need to spend urgently. We have managed to keep our eight part time staff on through the furlough scheme; that has been a big help. We have continued to pay them their full wage, as we felt we could afford to and wanted to retain them. Going forwards, we have lots of plans but simply don’t know when we’ll be able to put a date on things.

“We are fortunate that the museum is housed in buildings owned by TfGM. We run it on their behalf with the aim of promoting public transport. It is a partnership which has stood us in good stead over more than 40 years.”

History

The museum has its roots in the SELNEC Transport Society, which was founded in 1970, becoming the Greater Manchester Transport Society in 1974. By the mid 1970s, with a growing number of vehicles in private hands, there was a need for storage, which was found in 1976. Greater Manchester PTE was also keen to keep a collection of relevant historic buses, leading to the collaboration with local enthusiasts and the start of an ongoing strong relationship, which continues with the PTE’s successor TfGM.

A small number of buses were initially kept at the Salford’s Frederick Road depot, and subsequently at Stockport’s Charles Street depot when more space was needed. The lease on the current premises, adjoining Go North West’s Queen’s Road depot, became due for renewal in 1976, and was not renewed by occupier GPO Telephones, leaving the site free for the fledgeling museum. Being housed in a former bus depot adds valuable atmosphere to the collection, and walking around there are still signs of the building’s former use for visitors who know where to look.

What is now Go North West’s Queen’s Road depot was opened as a tram depot in 1901. In the late 1920s, the museum’s current upper hall was built to house then-new motorbuses, whilst what has become the museum’s lower hall remained an open yard. In the mid-1930s, that yard in the space between the two buildings was roofed across to provide an undercover fuel and wash area.

Reflecting the needs of the period, a set of pumps dispensed both petrol and diesel, and were connected to a set of gauges in a cabin above. Looking up into the rafters, it is still possible to see what remains of that cabin, though it is now somewhat dilapidated and inaccessible – when in use, it was accessed from outside via a set of stairs which led onto the exterior of the roof, which must have made it a rather unpleasant place to work in winter! For security, those access points have long since been blocked off. On the floor meanwhile, the remains of the drains from the wash gantries can also be seen.

It remains somewhat of a mystery as to how long the fuel cabin remained in use: it was thought that buses had their numbers painted on the roof to allow identification from the cabin, but Dennis explained that it didn’t appear that enough buses based at the depot seemed to have had such numbers applied, meaning it was questionable to what extent the cabin was used and how. Just like with its #MysteryMondays, I’m sure the museum would like to hear from you if you know!

For those who haven’t been, a trip to the museum is always worth it, and the vast collection will mean that there is something for everyone – although of course for now, those with an interest transport and social history will have to enjoy the vast archives through social media, an enthralling experience in itself, and one which builds on, rather than simply duplicates, what can be seen in the museum’s two halls.

Under restoration: Bury 116

This 1963 Leyland Atlantean was repainted in 1978 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Bury Corporation Tramways, but never received a thorough restoration. That is now being put right, with a complete overhaul including a full interior strip and bodywork repairs.

 

Under restoration: Oldham 246

 

Under restoration: Manchester 436

 

#MysteryMondays

 

From the archives…

 

For those in the industry, please think of MoTGM next time you are having a clear-out. It is easy to forget that what we don’t need today might be a valuable asset or intriguing piece of social history in generations to come…

All images courtesy of MoTGM unless otherwise credited.

www.motgm.uk, www.motgmshop.uk

 

Check out our YouTube video from our visit to the Museum https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g9vfcreaHFc

[/wlm_ismember]