The tiny Dorset tank museum that’s conquered the world

Head of Marketing Nik Wyness and curator David Willey of The Tank Museum
Head of Marketing Nik Wyness (L) and curator David Willey of The Tank Museum - John Lawrence

In a social media landscape where #lovemydog and trends like “Girl Dinner” thrive, you would be forgiven for thinking that a channel devoted to tanks would not be racking up the likes. But how wrong you would be.

Against all odds, The Tank Museum – an impressive collection of 300 armoured vehicles hidden away in a very remote woodland in Bovington, off the Dorset coast – is pulling in over 550,000 subscribers on YouTube, more than the Tate and the Louvre combined, and its videos have gained more than 100 million views. While it may be small in size, it’s now one of the world’s most powerful museums in terms of social-media might.

It’s an unusual reincarnation for what began as a secret location for the British Army to train its first tank regiment in 1917. After the war, armoured vehicles were abandoned in the surrounding fields and, in 1923, it was turned into a technical and teaching resource for military personnel, before opening its doors to the public in the 1950s.

Although hard to locate on a map, it’s triumphed over larger museums by harnessing the global fascination for 50-ton hunks of metal and its staff’s incredible expertise.

“We’re not in the centre of London, people aren’t going to trip over us,” says Nik Wyness, the head of marketing, who has overseen the triumphant YouTube campaign. “We can be a bit overlooked by the [museum sector]. There’s an assumption that, if it’s not coming out of a metropolitan area then it’s not very good. So it’s a matter of enormous pride that this is an area where we are leading the entire industry.”

Nik Wyness with a WW2 German Panther Tank
Nik Wyness with a WW2 German Panther Tank - John Lawrence

Before its digital transformation, The Tank Museum’s bread and butter was visitors to the south coast looking for entertainment on a rainy day, with ticket sales totalling around 250,000 a year. But in 2010, to drive up awareness of the museum among tank enthusiasts, Wyness started to make short video clips featuring their resident experts.

One of those early videos – about a replica First World War Mark IV tank used in the film War Horse – is still their best performing. Just under five minutes long, it features the museum’s curator, David Willey and has, to date, had 2.7 million views.

“It looks a little old now, because I shot and edited it myself,” explains Wyness. In total, the channel now boasts 448 videos. A new one is posted every week.

Over on the more youthful video-hosting platform TikTok, the museum’s account – “TankTok” if you will – has 55 million views. A younger fan base has found the museum through the hugely popular online tank warfare game, World of Tanks.

“We were very fortunate to have two experts who are naturally gifted communicators,” says Wyness. “It was all one-take stuff, no script, talking straight into the camera.”

Many of the early videos featured the tank expert and historian David Fletcher, a “goldmine of knowledge” who has since retired. They have also harnessed the passion and expertise of curators Willey and Chris Copson.

David Willey with a WW2 German Tiger Tank
David Willey with a WW2 German Tiger Tank - John Lawrence

Wyness had been warned there wouldn’t be an audience for videos longer than two minutes. However an 80-minute video about the Battle of Arras that was delivered straight-to-camera by David Willey, which he says was “like something from the Open University”, has had more than 800,000 views.

However, like many successful adopters of online platforms, there were questions about how much effort and resources should be ploughed into content they gave away for free. In 2017, they realised that the vast majority of their viewers were in America. With the trustees questioning the value of viewers who would never pay to go through the museum’s door, thinking shifted.

“We needed to make it sustainable,” says Wyness. “There were no museums trying to do this at the time, so for tactics in generating revenue, I had to follow the YouTubers that my son watches.”

As a result, last year the museum generated just over 25 per cent of its roughly £2 million turnover from non-visitors, thanks to a combination of YouTube advertising revenue, Patreon (a subscription service), brand partnerships and e-commerce.

The Tank Museum in Bovington, Dorset
Last year the museum generated over 25 per cent of its turnover from non-visitors - John Lawrence

Back in 2019, the annual turnover of The Tank Museum Shop was just £190,000. When the pandemic forced the museum to close, the team focused on e-commerce, making the most of the working-from-home phenomenon by selling hoodies and slippers. By the end of 2020, the shop turnover was £1.2 million. Meanwhile, in the same year, £100,000 was raised from the museum’s Tankfest live stream. This year 24,000 people attended the annual event in Bovington.

While Wyness insists it has been a team effort, with no single person taking all the glory, the strategy has made unwitting celebrities of the museum’s curators, with Willey now used to people doing double takes when he’s out in public. Wyness laughs. “Not many curators in the world have to sign autographs and pose for selfies,” he says.