Crowd numbers plummet at Sir Peter Jackson's Great War Exhibition

The Great War exhibition tells the story of WWI from its pre-1914 origins to the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.
TE PAPA/SUPPLIED

The Great War exhibition tells the story of WWI from its pre-1914 origins to the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.

Fewer than 50 locals dribble through the doors of Sir Peter Jackson's Great War Exhibition each day as attendance numbers plunge.

The trust in charge of the $10 million World War I exhibition – which has earned top marks on Trip Advisor - says that because its own early figures were so over-inflated the visitor drop off is not as severe as it would seem.

Even so, a new $15 adult cover charge has seen a drop in attendance of up to 50 per cent, as it nears the third Anzac Day since it opened.

Sir Peter Jackson opens the new display at the Great War Exhibition in Wellington.
ROBERT KITCHIN/FAIRFAX NZ

Sir Peter Jackson opens the new display at the Great War Exhibition in Wellington.

By contrast, a free World War I exhibition at Te Papa has seen more than 1.2 million visitors flock through and no significant drop-off showing.

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Before the charge – introduced a year ago to counter a lack of sponsorship – it was thought more than 500 people visited the Dominion Museum, above the Pukeahu National War Memorial Park, daily. That number is now less than 300.

An injured soldier.
CHARLOTTE CURD/FAIRFAX NZ

An injured soldier.

Of those, about 45 per day, were from Wellington.

It is a far cry from the exhibition's halcyon days - when there were queues out the door and – according to old estimates – 1000 visited on busy days and 140,000 people visited in the opening nine months.

National Military Heritage Charitable Trust Board chairwoman Dame Fran Wilde said there had been days early on when there were probably crowds of 1000 but queues out the door had not been a problem this summer.

Miniature battle field models at the exhibition.
CHARLOTTE CURD/FAIRFAX NZ

Miniature battle field models at the exhibition.

"Until we started charging we did not have an accurate visitor count and I suspect it was hugely overestimated.

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"It was estimated that we were getting over 500 visitors a day and now we are counting just under 300." 

It was a drop of "40 to 50 per cent" and expected when the cover charge was introduced, she said.

Lieutenant-Colonel William Malone in his bunker at the The Great War Exhibition in Wellington.
CHARLOTTE CURD/FAIRFAX NZ

Lieutenant-Colonel William Malone in his bunker at the The Great War Exhibition in Wellington.

Children aged 16 and under are free.

Wilde was brought in at the end of 2015, months after the exhibition opened, and found the organisation in a mess.

"It was built in 10 weeks and frankly the controls on it were too loose."

When she looked at the books, "the numbers just didn't add up" while the the projected visitor numbers were "extremely optimistic", she said.

"Now we have clean numbers."

Wilde vehemently denied she was sugar-coating the numbers.

"It should be noted that after the Kaikoura earthquake numbers dropped sharply and are only just starting to come up again.

"We rely on out of town visitors and are assuming that people stopped coming to Wellington for a period – and presumably Wellingtonians stopped going out. This was unfortunate because it was peak season."

Down the road at Te Papa's free Gallipoli exhibition – a World War I remembrance exhibition involving Weta Workshop – museum figures show more than 1.2m visitors had attended since the April 2015 opening.

This summer – post Kaikoura quake – had seen a little more than 180,000 visitors, compared to about 190,000 in the same period a year before.

Meanwhile, the much-delayed interactive "Trench Experience" exhibit at the Great War exhibition was now expected to open halfway through 2017, Wilde said.

It was billed as a visceral, up-close and personal journey inside the sights, sounds and smells of warfare, complete with the stench of the trench system millions of soldiers lived and fought in.

It was supposed to open in August 2015 but then delayed till about April 2016. 

Jackson – who was in charge of its construction – was the only person who could explain the delays, she said.

"I think he has been busy."

For Anzac Day, April 25, the exhibition will be open after the dawn parade for a breakfast and tour. Bookings open next week.

 - Stuff

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