Public bored by new wave of museums of millennium

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SOME OF Britain's most ambitious public projects are admitting that they have seriously overestimated public interest in them, amid an over-zealous pursuit of lottery money.

Projects that have received tens of millions of pounds to help herald in the new millennium have found that levels of donations have not been matched by those by visitors.

Five days ago the recently opened Earth Centre in Doncaster announced it is to lay off 30 of its 140 staff because visitor numbers have fallen far short of expectations. Estimates of half a million by November have already been pared to 120,000.

But the Earth Centre is not alone. To the embarrassment of lottery grant adjudicators, several other high-profile projects are struggling to live up to the hype.

Projects such as the Sheffield Centre for Pop and the National Centre for Coal Mining elicited millions of pounds of lottery money - but found that public interest was limited.

The Earth Centre was built with pounds 50m of Millennium Commission lottery money on one of Britain's most devastated, contaminated colliery sites.

Jonathan Smales, the chief executive, conceded there was "some naivety" in the project's targets for visitor numbers. "The bidding process encourages you to go too far," he said.

Local people are still grappling with what the centre is all about. Sustainable development - its big theme - is not proving a huge draw. Mr Smales conceded the Earth Centre had "done very poorly" with the public. "We have not broken through the preconceptions," he said.

Pop music's popularity is also not reflected in museum attendances. Sheffield's National Centre for Popular Music opened in April (pounds 11m of lottery money, plus pounds 2m from the European Regional Development Fund) but projections of 400,000 visitors a year have been blown by anecdotal evidence of just a few hundred a day. A mailshot was last week knocking pounds 2.75 off the usual pounds 7.25 weekend entry price for locals and a handful of staff have been "released".

David Andrews, chief executive of the Yorkshire Tourism Board, believes today's museum-goers want to use their eyes and ears and by its nature the Sheffield venue only caters for one. While Yorkshire's famous film sites have attracted visitors, Sheffield does not hold the same musical cachet. "Only Nashville does that."

Similarly, the National Coal Mining Museum in Wakefield, built on the only surviving 19th-century colliery in the UK, opened in 1988 but has been plagued by financial problems despite several lottery grants. Flooding didn't help as visitor numbers fell from 80,000 in 1990 to 38,000 last year. Last week, the museum learned it would receive less than half the pounds 10.65m anticipated in extra lottery heritage money because it had failed to improve its financial position fast enough.

By contrast, the National Glass Centre in Sunderland has been a huge success. The pounds 16m Centre opened in June last year with pounds 7m of lottery money (the rest came mostly from ERDF and the former Tyne and Wear Development Corporation). It has had 97,500 visitors in its first year against projections of 70,000. David Andrews believes more realistic visitor targets would avoid embarrassment for the newer museums. "My concern is how carefully the lottery people look at the revenue generating side," he said. "(Lottery cash bidders) create what the funding people want to hear rather than what they can deliver."

Perhaps they should look at the pounds 1.4m World of James Herriot centre in North Yorkshire. The council paid pounds 880,000 and the rest has come from the public, after the Millennium Commission turned it down. There were more than 15,000 bookings before its March opening.