Press coverage weakens support for 'Sovereign': Low attendances at the Victoria and Albert Museum's royal exhibition could cost pounds 1m. David Lister reports

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The Independent Online
SOVEREIGN, the exhibition at London's Victoria and Albert Museum to mark the Queen's 40th year on the throne, nearly caused red faces before it opened. The museum had to abandon plans to sell T-shirts emblazoned '40 years a Queen' when it was pointed out that they could become a uniform for London's ageing confirmed bachelors.

But red faces will be harder to avoid when Sovereign - 'The Exhibition Of A Lifetime' - closes in September. Attendances, often under 1,000 a day, are much lower than expected and far below the 20,000-plus a week needed to break even. The pounds 2m exhibition is likely to lose its sponsors, Reed International, Pearson and the Daily Telegraph, pounds 1m.

Critics of the new regime at the V and A have seized on the exhibition, with its electronically operated stuffed corgi in a mock-up of the Windsor Castle study, as an ill-judged event for the national museum of art and design.

But Sovereign, though a little static with rather too many glass cases, is an enjoyable enough snapshot of 40 years of the Queen's reign and it does have some treasures, including Magna Carta and masterpieces from the Royal Collection. The V and A's research has found a 95 per cent satisfaction rating from people who have seen it.

The low attendances are, it seems, the reaction to the press coverage of the troubles of the younger members of the Royal Family, even though the exhibition is about the Queen.

Brian Herring, co-ordinating director of the Royal Anniversary Trust, which thought up the exhibition, said: 'All that hype has not helped. I am sure that there's a perspective about the Royal Family which puts people off.'

V and A officials have noticed in particular that few young people have been to the exhibition.

Sovereign has also had some bad luck. It opened in the middle of the general election campaign and lost a lot of hoped-for publicity. The lack of American tourists because of the exchange rate this summer has deprived it of a key audience.

But there have also been mistakes. The pounds 6 entrance fee, pounds 4.90 for children, is too high - including the headphone guide in the price was probably a mistake.

The exhibition was put together in under a year - about one-third of the time spent preparing most big exhibitions - and several bodies and individuals were involved - the V and A, the Royal Anniversary Trust, the Royal College of Art commissioned to organise it, Pentagram, the design group, which was commissioned to design it, and Viscount John Julius Norwich, a royalty expert, and Professor Christopher Frayling, the art expert, the curators.

The lesson for the museum must surely be that any exhibition on its premises reflects upon it and that it must be more involved in planning. For the organisers the lesson must be that a show at an institution takes on the ethos of its venue. Sovereign was reviewed, not always favourably, by art critics, but it was not really intended to be an art show.

Colin Tweedy, director of the Association for Business Sponsorship of the Arts, the sponsors' umbrella group, said: 'All the blockbusters in London are having attendance difficulties with the recession - pounds 6 is clearly a lot of money for people, particularly if they want to go as a family.'

The Queen and 12 members of her family have visited the exhibition and enjoyed it. However, with only 40 per cent of all visitors coming from this country, and most of those middle-aged and elderly, she may reflect that the over-exposure of her childen's private lives has led to under-exposure of her own public life.

(Photograph omitted)