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Queues outside the Imperial War Museum, July 2014. Photo: © Imperial War Museum
Queues outside the Imperial War Museum, July 2014. Photo: © Imperial War Museum

When IWM London’s First World War Galleries re-opened on 19th July 2014, the queues extended past the big naval guns and out of the gates to the north of the building. On the first day, over 8,000 people came to visit the museum and 60,134 people had come to visit within the first week. Timed entry was also allocated to visitors to prevent overcrowding within the new exhibition. Photographs from 40 years ago show almost identical queues. However, these were for the Radio Times Colditz Escape Exhibition.

This exhibition ran from January to September 1974 in conjunction with the popular BBC television series Colditz, a drama about Allied prisoners of war imprisoned at Colditz Castle, screened from 1972-1974. In fact, the exhibition was so popular it ensured that the IWM was the only national museum in London whose attendances increased during the government introduction of charges from 1st January 1974-29th March 1974.

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Queues outside the Imperial War Museum for the ‘Radio Times Colditz Escape’ Exhibition, 1974. © Imperial War Museum.
Queues outside the Imperial War Museum for the ‘Radio Times Colditz Escape’ Exhibition, 1974. © Imperial War Museum.

When the museums adopted charging, both The Times and The Guardian reported attendance figure slumps. Figures from January 1974 compared to 1973 showed a 104,000 decrease at the Science Museum, 92,000 at the V&A and 75,000 at the National Gallery. The reduction in numbers continued to fall in February; the National Gallery was worse off than in January with 33,310 visitors, a third of the number in February 1973. The only exception was the IWM where attendance increased dramatically; there were 70,535 visitors in January 1974 compared to 34,933 in January 1973, and 87,501 visitors in February 1974 compared to 42,614 in February 1973.[1] Today, happily, entry to IWM London remains free to all.


[1] Nicholas de Jongh, “Museum attendance figures slump after the charges, The Guardian (1959-2003) [London (UK)] 07 Feb 1974, 5; Geraldine Norman. "Growing fall in museum visits since charges began." Times [London, England] 5 Mar. 1974: 4. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 29 July 2014.