BT to pull the plug on phone museum

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The Independent Online
While BT executives toast their pounds 13bn takeover deal with the US long distance phone giant MCI, the company is considering pulling the plug on Britain's national telephones museum due to lack of funds.

The BT musuem, tucked away beneath a concrete multi-storey car park near Blackfriars Bridge in London, houses countless treasures in the UK's proud technological history from the discovery of the telegraph in the 1830s.

Saved from closure earlier this year it has been passed, unwanted, around BT's internal bureaucracy and has yet to be allocated further funding for the company's next financial year, which begins in April.

Insiders are convinced the museum, which employs six staff, will not survive, despite attracting 23,000 visitors last year. "We just don't fit into the corporate structure any more. They see us as a drain on budgets," said one source.

The cash shortfall is thought to be in the region of just pounds 500,000, a drop in the ocean compared with the pounds 2.2bn BT is proposing to pay out to its 2.3 million shareholders in a special dividend next autumn. Ironically, the cash gap is virtually the same as the annual basic salary of BT's chief executive, Sir Peter Bonfield.

Staff at the museum have already begun the sad process of giving away exhibits which, though not valuable in money terms, have a priceless place in British industrial history. Thousands of old telephones, switchboards and memorabilia are housed in an unmanned warehouse near Heathrow Airport. They include 17 vintage GPO vans and crates of bakelite handsets which have never even been catalogued.

The Museum of National Telephony opened in 1982, the year after British Telecom was split off from the Post Office as the precursor to privatisation. It takes visitors through Britain's dominant contribution to the history of telephony, from the huge expansion of the telegraph network during the 1840s railway boom to digital communications revolution of the 1990s.

BT said last night that a final decision on the museum's future had yet to be taken. "One can never guarantee the everlasting future of anything, but at the moment it's business as usual," a spokesman said.