Closed for a year, Petersen Automotive Museum went online and built a global fan base

The Los Angeles-based car museum put its team to work curating new exhibits and giving free online tours.
May 1, 2021, 12:00 PM UTC

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For the better part of the past year, the joy of taking a leisurely, maskless stroll through just about any museum has been put on hold. Mark it down as yet another one of the many ways the COVID-19 pandemic has changed daily life and affected activities people might have previously taken for granted.

When the Petersen Automotive Museum, a Los Angeles haven for auto enthusiasts, closed its doors in March 2020, it locked away everything from classic cars and artifacts from automotive history, to dreamy concept rides that look like they leaped straight off the pages of a science fiction novel.

“In the beginning, we really had no idea what was going to happen. We didn’t know if we were going to be closed for a week or three weeks or two months,”  Bryan Stevens, creative exhibitions director of Petersen Automotive Museum, tells Fortune. “I don’t even think at that point, any of us were thinking as far out as six months or a year.”

The Petersen Automotive Museum had a plan. In February, as the virus began to spread rapidly in the United States, the museum’s board approved a digital strategy they could pivot to in the event they had to temporarily close.

California museums shut their doors on March 17, 2020. That same day, with a lean crew, the museum’s staff created what would be the first of hundreds of YouTube videos that would not only reach a global audience over the course of the next year, but also drive revenue to invest in new exhibits and most importantly, keep everyone employed.

After a brief reopening in June, the museum’s team realized a future timeline for returning to business as usual was uncertain. Additionally, even if they were allowed to open their doors again soon, who’s to say they wouldn’t have to shut them just as quickly?

The team upped the horsepower of its digital strategy. Through the first-ever full digital guided tour of the museum, along with new exhibits, user-submitted videos, and educational content, they churned out YouTube videos at an impressive speed, racking up millions of views.

From the Redefining Performance exhibit.
Courtesy of the Petersen Automotive Museum

“We wanted to grow our footprint and raise the awareness level outside Los Angeles, and the team did it in spades,” says Terry Karges, executive director of the Petersen Automotive Museum. “What we ended up producing was the opportunity for the automotive enthusiast and collectors worldwide to have a whole new entertainment channel.”

Finding a global audience

Going to a museum has always been about the in-person experience of getting a close look at something special, whether it’s dinosaur bones, the Mona Lisa, or in the case of the Petersen, flashy hot rods and century-old classic cars. 

Putting an entire collection meant to be savored in person online would be a challenge. Not only that, but the Petersen Automotive Museum didn’t have much of a YouTube presence before the pandemic, so getting into the practice of shooting, editing, and finding out what works and what does not, was a learning experience, but one the team threw itself into during lockdown.

“Since we were publishing videos four or five days a week, we were shooting and editing ourselves,” says Michael Bodell, chief operating officer at the Petersen Automotive Museum. “As the pandemic progressed, we started hiring additional staff and contractors to help us with the content. It has built up to something pretty spectacular.”

Before the pandemic, 80% of the people who visited the Petersen Automotive Museum lived within a 40-mile radius of its location. Now, with a large digital footprint, the museum’s audience is global. More than 60% of viewers on its YouTube channel are located outside the United States, according to demographic data provided to Fortune. Its online audience also skews younger, with an average age of 24 years old and a nearly even split between men and women. 

With the pandemic raging and travel still uncertain, Stevens, the exhibition director, started to dream up new exhibits the museum could have ready to draw people back in person, whenever they could eventually reopen. He likened it to a “guessing game.”

“We started considering new exhibits that weren’t on our calendar and creating them remotely and preparing them and installing them and having them ready to go for whenever we might open, and obviously we were wrong about every one of those [possible dates],” he says. “We ended up with a whole museum full of brand-new exhibits that nobody has yet seen in person, so we were in an interesting situation.”

From the “Supercars: A Century of Spectacle and Speed” exhibit.
Courtesy of the Petersen Automotive Museum

The new exhibits, which were set up inside the museum, include “Supercars: A Century of Spectacle and Speed,” which showcases the evolution of supercars; “Extreme Conditions,” which features 11 custom competition, recreational, and utilitarian off-roading vehicles; and “Redefining Performance,” which showcases Porsche’s transfer of technology from the race track to the road.

With admission at a standstill, the Petersen Automotive Museum did the next best thing: It put the new exhibits online, along with its regular slate of YouTube content, free of charge.

For a team that hadn’t fully embraced a digital strategy until the pandemic forced them to, the Petersen Automotive Museum manages to have something for everyone. The YouTube channel is an eclectic mix of short- and long-form content, ranging from a 1913 supercar that reached a speed of 100 mph to an hour-long tour of the museum’s vault, where 250 rare cars are in storage, and a tutorial for kids on how to build their own balloon-powered cars. 

Last year, Bodell also stepped in front of the camera last year to give the first-ever, on-camera guided tour of the museum, lasting two hours and 14 minutes. The rationale was if people couldn’t come to the museum, then the Petersen Automotive Museum would go to them.

The tour has recorded more than 668,000 views as of April and includes grateful comments from people around the world who were mesmerized by the cars and appreciative of a new field trip they could take from the safety of their homes.

Inside the Vault lot at the Petersen Automotive Museum.
Courtesy of the Petersen Automotive Museum

“Wow. Lock me in and throw away the key. What a collection!” says one commenter.

Another viewer was wowed by the production quality and effort the museum put into hosting a virtual tour for everyone stuck at home.

“Shout-out to the camera man, not a lightweight rig, and he’s stepping over electrical cords and railings, peeking in windows, and I didn’t see one reflection or direct lighting glare from the camera or a single boom shadow either,” the commenter says. “Additionally, nice job to all involved, amazing production team, and I expected his knowledge [as chief operating officer] to be extensive, but his fluid transitions and dynamic story-esc [sic] narration over the tour timeline make it a truly one-of-a-kind experience. Thank you for creating it.”

Building a digital revenue stream

For the last year, no one has been able to purchase a $16 adult admission and visit the Petersen Automotive Museum in person. Ticket sales are an important part of the museum’s cash flow and account for 40% of its revenue, according to Bodell. The museum also counted on venue rentals for private events and group tours, which was also on pause during lockdown.

The museum worked with its corporate partners, and strengthened new partnerships, to keep that revenue stream strong and aligned with its new digital strategy. In August, the museum hosted Petersen Car Week, a virtual car show, sponsored by Michelin. Highlights included new car debuts, including a Ford Motor GT, along with user-submitted videos showing off classic cars and garage tours from automotive enthusiasts around the world.

“Just as we would have a corporate sponsor for an exhibit in person, we have been able to do the same for our online content,” Bodell says. “I would actually say our partnerships have gotten stronger because, from a pure tracking KPI [key performance indicator], a visitor in the museum is wonderful and it’s something that is a necessity to our operation, but everything that’s virtual, we can track much greater than we could a visit in the museum. Some of our corporate partners actually prefer that.”

From the “Electric Revolution” exhibit.
Courtesy of the Petersen Automotive Museum

The Petersen Automotive Museum also established new relationships. Omaze, a fundraising platform, helped the museum raise money by raffling off rare cars and cash prizes. One such fundraiser to win a 2005 Ford GT and $20,000 concluded in November and brought more than $250,000 for the museum. 

“They have raised significant funds for us, and we’ve been able to tell a lot of great automotive stories with them,” Bodell says.

Omaze also sponsors the museum’s Global Cars and Coffee YouTube series, which features user-submitted videos from around the world and has served as a literal storytelling vehicle for car enthusiasts.

Some videos aren’t sponsored but are the type of content that keeps viewers coming back for more. 

Earlier this month, actor Tim Allen, of Home Improvement fame, opened up his private collection to give the Petersen’s audience an entertaining and informative tour, showing off everything from hot rods to a Tesla.

During a year of uncertainty and business volatility, being prepared with a digital strategy has been a win for the Petersen Automotive Museum. In addition to corporate partnerships, the museum also relied on its network of private donors who were eager to help during the pandemic.

Last year, the California Association of Museums estimated closures were costing the state’s museums over $22 million per day. As museums opened up around the United States with strict rules and reduced capacity, Los Angeles area museums remained closed.

And then finally, on March 25, 2021, the Petersen Automotive Museum’s time came. 

Moving full speed ahead with a hybrid strategy

March 25 was a cause for celebration on Museum Row, the area on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles that includes the Petersen Automotive Museum.

“People are definitely wanting to come back. It feels wonderful,” Bodell says. “We sold out the first weekend we reopened.”

While the Petersen Automotive Museum is still the same place it was before the pandemic, visiting in person now comes with a new set of rules to keep everyone safe.

The museum is following the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health’s guidelines. Guests are required to purchase their tickets in advance for a specific time. The museum’s capacity is limited to 25%. Guests must also wear masks and follow directional signage to maintain social distancing. For visitors, it seems like a small price to pay for the opportunity to visit a museum after a year spent mostly at home.

“People are enjoying the directional path,” Bodell says. “Everything we implemented is working extremely well. We are trying to refine the experience as quickly as possible.”

There are still plenty of pandemic-related questions that can’t yet be answered. It’s unclear when the museum might be able to operate at full capacity or even when society as a whole will go back to the way things were before the pandemic, with or without masks. 

With a new online global community that now knows what the Petersen Automotive Museum is, the team says they plan to keep going with a hybrid digital and in-person strategy, even when they’re back to full capacity. And of course, they hope to welcome viewers from around the world in person, whenever travel restrictions are lifted.

The staff members who spoke with Fortune say what they’ve achieved in the last year while closed comes down to teamwork.

“We’ve got an entrepreneurial team and the pandemic really strengthened that we’re working as hard as we possibly can together, because we’re in this together,” Bodell says. “I think that that was a really great lesson for us in that we have this amazing team who really stepped up to the responsibility and looked out for each other.”

Karges adds that passion also played a huge role in keeping the team moving, even in the toughest times.

“We weren’t working on a new task. It was just a different way of doing things,” he says. “All of our team are passionate car people. You could almost say that, uh, we can’t wait to get to work and then we don’t want to go home. I don’t think for anybody at the museum, it’s just a job.”