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Good Food And Good Pictures

October 18, 1988

LONDON (AP) _ An ad for the staid Victoria and Albert Museum shows a white mug behind an odd black pot from its collection. Underneath it says: ″There’s nothing wrong with modern art that a good cup of tea won’t cure.″

The museum reports better attendance in the three months since launching a series of flip, sometimes slangy ads such as these. The ″V&A. An ace caff (cafeteria) with quite a nice museum attached,″ they all say.

Like other museums facing increased competition for visitors and cash, the V and A is discovering how to sell itself.

These citadels of art, science and history are hiring marketing professionals, introducing admission fees and courting corporate sponsorship - the V and A named a gallery after Toshiba Corp. while the Natural History Museum leases its scientists as consultants.

For national museums, especially those with a tradition of free admission and fat government support, the shakeup is dictated by the entreprenurial spirit of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who believes culture should help pay its own way.

The private Museums Association, Britain’s professional museum body, recently devoted its annual meeting to marketing.

″It’s a very radical reappraisal of whatthe museum is in business to do,″ says Graeme Farnell, director general of the association. ″There is some concern ... about increasing the commercial slant. Fundamentally, it’s a concern about integrity.″

The venerable 235-year-old British Museum feels even more strongly.

″There is a point where it’s possible to ask the question: Have we gone so far down a road ... that we are no longer a museum?″ says Deputy Director Jean Rankine.

However, critics say the ad campaign is a disgrace, and that the museum is more interested in attendance than the art experience.

Museums say the crunch stems mainly from rising costs and shrinking government funding.

Under a new government system fixing grants three years in advance, the Natural History Museum’s subsidy will decline from $36.8 million this fiscal year to $36.3 million in 1990-91.

After the Natural History Museum’s $26.6 million 1986-7 grant left it more than $2.1 million short, it threatened to close galleries, trim staff or charge admission. It began charging $3.40 per adult in 1987.

The state-funded Museums and Galleries Commission, in a survey of national museums, said the financial strain was already noticeable in ″closed galleries, reduced security, curtailed opening hours or days, backlogs of work, ... and less good service to the public.″

Competition adds to the woes, with 35 to 40 new museums opening each year and vying for the mere 25 percent of the British who visit museums, compared with an estimated 60 percent of the U.S. public.

″It’s not just museums, we’re competing with all sorts of claims on people’s times,″ says Charles Mills, the recently hired first marketing manager at the 136-year-old V and A, the nation’s eclectic museum of art and design whose exhibits range from 17th century waistcoats to Chinese porcelain.

After years of shutting one day a week to save money, the V and A began asking for donations in 1985.

Although the fee is voluntary, visitors are led through toll booth-like gates that exert psychological pressure on them to pay.

Some were so outraged that they wore buttons boasting, ″I didn’t pay at the V and A,″ and attendance fell by more than 40 percent in two years, from 2 million in 1985 to 1.4 million last year.

Attendance is recovering, and entrance fees will cover about 4 percent of the museum’s estimated $24.3 million in running costs, Mills says.

The Natural History Museum, which hired a marketing manager this year, has also suffered a 40 percent fall in attendance since instituting 2-pound ($3.42) charges last year.

The museum now sees signs of a recovery, and expects to raise $334,000 from sales of scientific research in the next year.

The national museums have also explored more corporate sponsorships and social events, including the British Museum, home of the fabled Egyptian mummy collection.

Still, while the museum has spent $1.01 million on upgrading its cafeteria, it draws the line at charging visitors.

″We are not a product to be marketed,″ says public services director Geoffrey House.

Neil Cossons, director of the Science Museum, warns that fear of commercialism will ultimately hurt museums.

″The reluctance on the part of many museums even to contemplate alternative frameworks of funding and management represents perhaps the greatest threat to their integrity, the quality of their care and the professional standing of their staffs,″ he wrote in May in The Sunday Times.

Cossons, who started the trend by instituting charges at the National Maritime Museum in 1984, wrote, ″The future of our museums is at stake. The battlefield will be the marketplace and the casualties will be those museums that fail to appreciate the public no longer lives in the 19th century.″

The Science Museum will begin charging visitors two pounds in October.

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