January 6, 1994
Mint Reopens Today -- Experts Say It Needs Better PR
Chronicle Staff Writer
Old Mint Museum in San Francisco will reopen today, a week after its
abrupt closure ignited a revolt that reached from Fifth and Mission
streets to the halls of Congress.
Backing down on plans to padlock the exhibit rooms in the old gray
edifice, the U.S. Mint announced that the facility will remain open for
90 days to allow the government and state and local agencies to
consider options for its future.
The suddenness of the closure and the volume of the reaction raised
questions around the country about the management of the museum. The
Mint wanted to close the facility because it lost money and because it
believed the $4 million exhibit of gold bars and coins was vulnerable
However, museum professionals said the Old Mint helped bring about its
As a public attraction, they said, the museum was destined for
financial failure because it kept limited hours, remained closed on
weekends, had static exhibits and did not advertise its unique
"Any attraction, even the free ones, have to work hard for success,"
said John Gerner, president of a museum consulting firm that bears his
name in Richmond, Va.
"Unless the attraction is located in a pathway of tourists, where they
are physically going to walk by it, like Ripley's Believe-it-or-Not
Museum at Fisherman's Wharf, it has to promote itself through
advertising and through offering attractive exhibits.
"Being free does not, in itself, attract visitors. It competes with
other free forms of entertainment and education, such as television and
Without promotion, Gerner said, the Old Mint "was essentially
condemning itself to low attendance -- to its fate."
Attendance at the museum was 85,000 annually, well behind the figures
posted by the mints in Denver and Philadelphia.
However, the Philadelphia mint is open longer hours, and during July
and August it is open every day.
Carol Mayer Marshall, former superintendent of the San Francisco Mint,
said the museum was especially popular among children and tourists. She
said she did not know the ratio of children to adults, but, she said,
"It was very large."
Patricia Gordon Michael, executive director of the American Association
for State and Local History in Nashville, Tenn., observed that if
attendance remains static while the percentage of school groups rises,
"it shows that you're not marketing yourself effectively."
"Their hours have already locked themselves out of a significant
portion of the population," Michael said. "They are saying that they
are not interested in adults or tourists. Are these people nuts, or
"Somebody who's making these decisions is not aware of the importance
of these collections to someone other than the government. It is
important to the history of San Francisco and the Gold Rush and the
whole Western movement, as well as to the history of the United
The museum's public profile was so low that it did not even advertise
its presence in the Yellow Pages.
Fear of theft of the gold, which was the centerpiece of the museum's
collection, was derided by Marshall and by museum professionals.
She said the gold bars were in a safe covered with Lucite and wired for
tampering. A guard stood by the exhibit during operating hours, and the
safe was locked at night.
"On the face of it, there is a lot of interest in high-value gold
artifacts," said consultant Gerner. "For example, a museum in Key West
that exhibits the gold bullion and finds from the Spanish galleons is
very popular." That is the facility operated by the Mel Fisher Martime
Heritage Society, which boasts a priceless collection of salvaged
"We have many millions of dollars in value of artifacts and coins and
bars of gold," said Melissa Kendrick, development director of that
museum. "You can't open a museum and then not give people something to
© 1994, The San Francisco Chronicle.