A Fresh Look at Old Favourites: Imperial War Museum

We work with some of the UK’s greatest venues – but we tend to only see them (professionally) when they’re in need of transformation.

In this series, we’re taking a look at some of London’s favourite heritage venues – to see whether their customer experience lives up to the high expectations of visiting tourists and Londoners alike.

This month, we headed to the Imperial War Museum on the anniversary of the D-Day landings. We were keen to see how the museum would recognise the occasion.

Entrance to the museum is free, with donations encouraged in the form of loose change or a tap from your card. Big points here; we’re sure the ROI from this contactless tech will see more museums implementing the idea. Lockers are a nice touch to leave guests feeling free to engage with the exhibits.

A special D-Day exhibition of the Normandy landings has been curated with photographs by Robert Capa. The images provide the visual reality of the terrors experienced and gives visitors a better sense of what the troops endured. The exhibition is running up until the end of September.

Upon arrival there was a book signing opportunity with Anthony Richards for his D-Day and Normandy book. IWM were also giving out D-Day anniversary newspapers in nearby tube stations. A brilliant touch for those who might consider a visit – but it would have been nice to see copies at the Museum itself, too.

Spread across 5 floors in an impressive atrium, The IWM invites visitors to navigate the museum at your own pace or have a guided tour. The welcome desk is situated in the atrium to answer queries and encourage membership. This means the security staff at the main entrance probably get asked a lot of questions about maps and where the toilets are!

The atrium gives guests an immediate understanding of the space – because each floor journey ends back here. It’s a stunning and modern space with a calm atmosphere and an impressive height.

The only downside is that you have to loop back on yourself quite a lot as there is no natural circuit around each floor. Floor maps of the galleries are useful and well laid out for those choosing not to upgrade to a £1 paper map. The timeline is a bit strange for the average guest – you might find yourself in the 80s then back to the First World War (unless we took a wrong turning somewhere!) 

On the top floor was Lord Ashcroft’s Gallery: Extraordinary Heroes. The gallery exists thanks to Tory peer Lord Ashcroft’s generous donation. Inside, it showcases in excess of 160 Victoria Crosses, medals and memorabilia and explores the concept of bravery and heroism.

The gallery has interactive moments throughout which we were really impressed with, from digital touch screens and comic books to a stamp machine trail (this is just as satisfying as an adult). The exhibition has had a lot of investment and it pays off, inviting real engagement with the stories on offer.

Next, we went to The Holocaust Exhibition. It is Britain’s first major Holocaust Exhibition and has been open since 2000. Photography is forbidden here and rightfully so. Storytelling through visuals, sound showers, posters, artefacts and a scaled model of Autschwitz takes visitors on a horrifying journey through the Nazi regime towards liberation. It’s atmospheric and immersive and you are able to explore the exhibition whichever way you like. Spaces for quiet reflection and a shortcut to the exit are respectful and considerate touches.

We emerge from the exhibition in shocked silence with other visitors. The layout of the museum guides us back to the heart of the building. We head to The Café on the ground floor atrium. With its striking Dazzle Ship concept, the space is smart and inviting (and pretty much full to the brim when we stopped by). The food offer elevates standard Museum fare, serving sourdough pizzas, traditional fish and chips, pies, and a selection of cakes and cookies. Prices were pretty reasonable with a chicken, broccoli and spinach pot pie for £7.50.

There are plenty of spending opportunities at the museum; a book shop, two gift shops as well as a space dedicated for kid’s retail. Each was carefully considered, relevant, not too expensive and presented well. The retail offer spills into the atrium to invite consideration in the museum’s central gathering space.

The original photographic prints available for purchase are a unique touch and offer guests something authentic to take home from their visit. Digital is integrated well, with music stations for visitors to listen to period music. Other on-brand knick-knacks included military masks, t-shirts, tea towels, tote bags and postcards.

For a free day out, the Imperial War Museum ticks all of our boxes. Our visit was roughly 2 hours long but you could easily make a day of it, having lunch in the café in between the exhibitions and having a stroll around the gardens. It really exceeded our expectations, there was enough to satisfy every age group and there were enough pause points to avoid information overload.

Customer Experience Scoreboard

  • Brand Presence 7/10 (Branding was appropriate yet not overboard)
  • Intuitive Journey 5/10 (We found ourselves lost in time on a few occasions)
  • Engaging Perspectives 9/10 (The Holocaust Exhibition is an absolute must )
  • Digital Integration 7/10 (Lots of opportunities to engage digitally)
  • Instagram Moments 6/10 (The entrance and atrium were definitely on our list)
  • Shop 10/10 (Items were relevant for the eras. Big points for the original prints – we purchased one ourselves)
  • Café 8/10 (The concept was well executed and also great variety of food)
  • Go-back-ability 7/10 (There’s so much to see – why would you not?)
  • Overall 8/10
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