How to open a museum

The Imperial War Museum, 1935 : Showing the main art gallery under construction. Image © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 509)

As everyone gears up for our partial reopening of IWM London on 29 July, here is our short guide to museum openings of yesteryear.

1. Big bang or small steps?

The Imperial War Museum opened in the Crystal Palace by King George V on 9 June 1920. Image © IWM (Q 44819)

Openings can be grandiose affairs with royal dignitaries, VIPs  and vol-au-vents.  Probably the biggest event in IWM history was its first opening at Crystal Palace in 1920. The opening included special trains from London Victoria rail station to help transport the crowds to the event.

Sometimes a staged process is better.  Following our last closure – in early 1989 – the museum partially opened to the public in March, and fully reopened later in June – with the Queen, Prince Philip, 200 guests, the Royal Marines Band and a tea party.   Much the same is planned this time around, when the full unveiling in summer 2014 is preceded by our partial reopening on 29 July 2013.

2. Hire a photographer

Guests arrive to open IWM London in its new home at Lambeth Road, London, 1936. Image © IWM (Q 60875)

When we opened the present building to the public in 1936, few official photographs were taken. The photograph above appears to have been taken by someone leaning out of a top floor office window.  The dots on the path are the Duke and Duchess of York, who performed the opening ceremony. The only images of the 1920 opening at Crystal Palace come from official press photographers.  By the time of IWM London’s most recent reopening in 1989, lessons had been learned and we made sure there were three staff photographers present to record the event for posterity.

3. Invite the press

Image © WM (D 2955)

A man buys a newspaper from a newspaper seller on Coventry Street in London, 1941. Image © WM (D 2955)

Each one of the museum’s openings has attracted significant press coverage and at each opening there has been a clear shift in focus from the idea of the museum as a place of memorial to the idea of the museum as a place to visit. The 1920 Times article on the Crystal Palace opening referred to ‘A record of sacrifice’ whereas 1989 articles concentrated on the new Blitz Experience with headlines such as ‘Museum Prepares for Blitz’.  When IWM London opened at its present location at Lambeth Road in 1936 comments from the press included ‘war horrors’ and the suitability of the former Bethlem Royal Hospital buildings as the new home for a war museum.

4. IWM London today

Image by Fosters + Partners.

A view of our new atrium opening summer 2014. Image by Fosters + Partners.

There are just ten days until we partially re-open on 29 July and our new exhibitions include a major new family exhibition Horrible Histories®: Spies; a new programme of contemporary art and photography, IWM Contemporary; and a rehang of our art collection, Architecture of War.  Next summer we will fully re-open and unveil our new First World War galleries in time for the First World War Centenary. You can find out what’s on or discover more about the history of IWM by visiting

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