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Museum sees money in metro retro

WEDNESDAY'S opening of the first retrospective devoted to the photographer Terence Donovan could be seen as something of a catch for one of the cultural world's better-kept secrets - the Museum of London. The East Ender made his name recording the Swinging Sixties for posterity, with portraits of the likes of Terence Stamp and Julie Christie, before going on to photograph Diana, Princess of Wales and other royals. He died in 1996.

The exhibition is being sponsored by the City law firm Denton Hall. The museum sees the backing as a step towards establishing itself as "a sponsorable organisation". For Denton Hall it provides an opportunity to step into the sort of territory that large accountancy firms such as Ernst & Young have been occupying with support for exhibitions such as the Royal Academy's current "Monet" display. According to Elizabeth Rantzen, director of business development at the law firm, the attraction is that it reinforces Denton Hall's position as a London firm at a time when it has emerged from aborted merger talks, while also fitting in with its image as a specialist in media and entertainment law.

The Donovan exhibition would not have been possible without the involvement of Denton Hall and matching funds from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport that the sponsorship brought.

There has been a shift in approach at the museum. Simon Thurley, who took over as director of the museum 18 months ago after a spell at the Historic Royal Palaces, has been the catalyst. He points out that while the museum had been "doing amazing things" in terms of exhibitions, it had taken its eye off "the visitor ball", so that annual gates had tumbled from 750,000 to 330,000. On his arrival, he told the governors of the institution (funded jointly by the Corporation of London and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport) that visitor figures should at least pass the 500,000 mark.

"This led to a sudden change of emphasis," he says, adding that the strategy was to target the Londoners who had stopped visiting. Adult Londoners now account for only 17 per cent of visitors, while foreign visitors make up 70 per cent. However, in the 23 years that the Museum of London has been open, the number of museums in the capital has trebled, to 350. Accordingly, competition for visitors and funds is intense.

Dr Thurley believes that a key success factor must be "absolute clarity of purpose": realising that: "This museum is a museum about London for Londoners."

He and his colleagues point to how the exhibition "London Bodies" - on the changing shape of the capital's citizens - had proved highly successful. It is hoped that the Donovan show, which features many scenes from the area in which the photographer grew up, as well as fashion shots that helped define an era, will continue the success. There are also high hopes for an exhibition "London Eats Out", which is being designed by Terence Conran.

`The eye that never sleeps: Donovan London Photographs', until 1 August at the Museum of London, 150 London Wall, London EC2 (0171-600 3699).