Hard task to keep children interested

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The Independent Online
"YOU NEED to concentrate on what you are doing. These aren't cheap places to go and you have to make the most of it all," declared Mary Taylor after steadfastly marching her 13-year-old grandson up to a demonstration of Japanese sword and gun training.

They were lucky to see it at all. Live interpretations of history have been among the first casualties at Leeds' Royal Armouries, which opened three years ago on 13 acres of reclaimed dockland.

Yet they were considered by many to be the key to keeping children interested amid the museum's many rooms of armour and guns, or "object overload," as one museum insider put it yesterday.

"The live interpretations were expensive," said Dr David Fleming, director of Tyne and Wear Museums. "But they were cut back and, to many, what was left was as dull as ditchwater. Thousands of swords and spears are no good unless you are a connoisseur."

Meanwhile, in the War Gallery yesterday, the Battle of Agincourt and the First World War were waged furiously in empty film theatres.

The high targets set by the museum, it seems, have simply been too challenging. As a Private Finance Initiative it needed to deliver a quick profit, and so Leeds was chosen for its 15 million population within a two-hour radius.

Initially, projected visitor numbers were put at one million per year but even before the Armouries opened, that had been scaled back to 750,000. The reality has never come close: visitors in the Armouries' first nine months in 1996 numbered 380,256; this year, the figure is believed to be less than 200,000.

It is not the first time unrealistic visitor projections have plagued museums in the North, often resulting in staff lay-offs. Two months ago the Earth Centre near Doncaster admitted its own projections were too high. The National Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield has experienced the same problems.

The museum was not helped by an elaborate fraud which saw it spend pounds 114,000 - nearly a third of its pounds 350,000 annual acquisitions budget - on an intricate parade helmet (the world's most expensive) in 1997 only to discover it was a fake.

But a pounds 7.50 per adult admission price (second only to the Science Museum in London) may have more to do with the Armouries' problems.

Visitors with children today will suffer the ignominy of forking out an extra pounds 2 to visit the best exhibits for the young which have been added for the summer: the Monster Creepy Crawly Show and Buffalo Bill's Wild West. That's without the pounds 2 minimum to park in the pay-and-display car park where the machine, suffice to say, stubbornly refuses to cough up change.