The Tank Museum in Bovington, England, doesn’t usually rank among the world’s great museums. Located next to a military base in serene countryside, the collection of around 300 armored vehicles attracts only a few hundred thousand visitors a year, mainly families on rained-out beach vacations.
Yet there is one place where it not only ranks among the world’s largest museums, but surpasses them: YouTube.
The Tank Museum’s channel has over 550,000 subscribers — surpassing the Museum of Modern Art (519,000), the Metropolitan Museum of Art (380,000) or the Louvre (106,000).
In April, it announced it was the first museum to get over 100 million views on YouTube, with weekly clips including intensely detailed discussions on tank history, chatty videos of the curators’ favorite war machines and newsier items on how armored vehicles are being used in Ukraine.
The channel’s success has pleased — and occasionally bemused — the museum’s staff. David Willey, a curator and one of its YouTube presenters, said that he once made an 80-minute video about the Battle of Arras, a World War II clash in northern France, and was surprised when it took off. “It’s the most dull talking head, and it’s now 800,000 views or something,” Willey said.
The museum world is taking note, at least in Britain. “They’ve changed the game,” said Jack Yates, the communications manager at the Royal Armories, another military museum with a large YouTube presence. The Tank Museum’s success was “not just in terms of creating content about their collection that reaches a mass audience, but commercializing it, too,” he added.
Founded in 1923 and originally open only to military personnel, the museum’s collection includes significant artifacts such as the world’s first tank, nicknamed “Little Willie,” and the only working example of the fearsome Tiger 1, a German vehicle used in World War II; as well as curiosities including a bright white tank that once belonged to the United Nations.
Nik Wyness, the museum’s head of marketing, said its journey on YouTube began from a desire to raise the Tank Museum’s profile. Being “on a once-secret military base in the middle of nowhere” made it hard to attract visitors, he said.
Its first forays were fund-raising videos and short items aimed at attracting media attention. Then, in 2015, it began a series called “Tank Chats,” in which David Fletcher, a military historian, stands in front of the museum’s vehicles and talks about their history and significance — sometimes delving into intense detail about a tank’s tracks and engine systems. Those videos were simple, one-take affairs, Wyness said, yet they soon took off, finding an audience among military veterans and youthful players of World of Tanks, a wildly popular online game.
Now, the museum has 10 staff members working on its YouTube output, and its slick videos resemble short documentaries. They typically feature archive footage of tanks in action, and sometimes under-the-hood sequences that explain how the vehicles work.
Filming in a museum is not without its challenges. One recent morning, Chris Copson, a presenter, was delivering a speech to camera about the Mark I vehicle that featured in the first tank battle, during World War I, when the museum opened its doors. Copson carried on as several families appeared in the back of his shot and audio of battle scenes played over the museum’s speaker system.
That film crew, which included four other staff operating cameras and moving lights, soon decided it would be easier to shoot inside the tank, and Copson clambered into the rusty Mark I and carried on, recording a segment that included discussion of the harsh conditions that crew would have experienced inside the tank.
“You really have to admire the bravery and tenacity of the guys who worked in these conditions,” he said.
The popularity of the museum’s videos have given the presenters a taste of the influencer life — both positive and negative. Willey, the curator, said he sometimes received selfie or autograph requests. Less endearingly, he added, “Russian bots” appeared to be targeting the museum’s clips on tank use in Ukraine, spamming the videos with negative comments.
At a time when many museums in Britain are struggling to cope with inflation and falling government subsidies, Wyness said that the YouTube clips had proved a financial boon. Last year, the museum generated a third of its revenue online, he said, including from viewers paying for early access to clips, and merchandise sales from an online store. Some of that roughly $2.5-million online income was used to hire Copson as a full-time presenter, as well as to hire Paul Famojuro, a former guide, to run the museum’s TikTok channel. It also went toward publishing old-school tank history books, Wyness said.
Willey, said that, thanks to YouTube, he was educating more people about tanks than he had ever expected. But, ultimately, he wanted more people through the museum doors. “As a museum person,” he said, “what I love most is the awe on people’s faces when they visit for the first time, stand in front of a tank and go, ‘Look how big it is!’” This was his reaction on his first visit to Bovington, aged 6, more than a half-century ago, he said.
He then stood up from the interview in the museum’s cafe and was heading back to his office when Kenneth Beynon, 74, a retired member of the U.S. Air Force on vacation from Chicago, tentatively called out to him.
“Hey, aren’t you that guy from YouTube?” Beynon said. Willey smiled, and then for a few moments, the pair talked tanks.