January 6, 1994

Old Mint Reopens Today -- Experts Say It Needs Better PR   

By Rob Haeseler
Chronicle Staff Writer

The 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 to theft.

However, museum professionals said the Old Mint helped bring about its own demise.

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 collections.

"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 libraries."

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 what?

"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 States."

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 treasure.

"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 see."



Copyright © 1994, The San Francisco Chronicle.