'Titanic' sets museum on a hopeful course

Titanic Logo Still afloat after a number of setbacks, the
Florida International Museum
is viewing the new exhibit less as a lifeboat,
more as an anchor for future success.

Times Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG -- Aside from acts of war, the sinking of the Titanic may be the most celebrated disaster of the 20th century: a symbol of misplaced human pride, only partly relieved by individual acts of heroism.

The Florida International Museum nearly suffered a similar fate.

After accumulating $11-million in debt in three years, the museum seemed destined to join this city's fabled list of grand ambitions and fizzled plans.

How fitting then, that the museum's future now rides on the world's largest exhibit of Titanic artifacts and memorabilia.

Museum officials may talk of change and new beginnings, but their bottom line is this: The Titanic blockbuster is the centerpiece of a make-or-break year.

"That's more than fair; it's reality," says museum president Joseph Cronin, who assumed full day-to-day control of museum operations in May 1997.

"We've been in a death spiral with three exhibitions, from the 600,000 people who came to "Treasures of the Czars"; through the Cairo debacle" and its last-minute substitute that drew a much smaller crowd; to the final show, "Alexander the Great," which attracted an audience only a third as large as expected.

Along with dwindling audiences came uncontrolled expenses and an uncontrollable director until finally the museum board and its major donors could see no alternative to shutting its doors.

That was in December.

A month later, after a stunning decision by the museum's major benefactors, John and Rosemary Galbraith, to forgive $8.3-million in loans, the City Council agreed to increase its own loans to the museum by $3.9-million in return for a deed to its building.

The new loan increased the city's overall commitment to $5.4-million, the bulk of which must be repaid within 29 months.

The museum board also ended its operating contract with museum impresario James E. Broughton, who had become increasingly estranged from the board and other city officials. Instead of paying nearly $100,000 a month for someone else to run the museum, museum president Cronin would assemble his own staff, which could be counted on to keep things within budget.

For the time being at least, the largest single draw of downtown recreational activity had been saved.

Museum officials are eager now to put all this behind them.

They talk of a new attitude of cooperation with other museums, tourist agents and downtown businesses, of a new era of customer service and fiscal responsibility.

Indeed, some downtown business folks say they have noticed the change.

"There's been a 300 percent turnaround in how they act toward local businesses," said Steven Coats, general manager of the Columbia Restaurant at The Pier. "They're very, very receptive to working with us to attract people to our business, and for us to attract people to theirs."

For "Treasures of the Czars" three years ago, the restaurant did promote the museum with posters and informational brochures, but "after that, the two-way communication kind of fell apart," Coats said. "Eventually, we got the message: 'We really don't want to work in conjunction with you.' "

Now, the Columbia and museum managers share mailing lists and leads on tour operators. The museum has a Columbia menu as well as menus from other downtown restaurants in its information booth. The museum will help promote a Titanic-themed dinner for tour groups at the Columbia, and the Columbia is among those restaurants donating food for the museum's opening reception.

Operating the museum as a non-profit organization, instead of through a profit-making private business such as Broughton's, makes such donations possible, said Wayne D. Atherholt, the museum's new director of marketing and public relations.

Other downtown restaurants also have expressed interest in working with the museum now that it has closed its own cafe and is no longer a competitor.

Florida International also has tried to become more of a team player among other downtown museums and arts groups, some of whom were troubled by the big new museum's voracious appetite for government subsidies. Shortly before the exhibit opening, Atherholt, who formerly held a similar position at the Salvador Dali Museum, successfully argued for a joint grant from the Tourism Development Council to promote all downtown museums.

"This is finally being run as a true non-profit organization, the way it should be," Atherholt said.

Museumgoers will notice other changes beyond the new facade at the entrance as part of a one-time $500,000 remodeling and hurricane-proofing grant from the state Legislature.

The galleries are larger. With the conversion of some former back-stage space, visitors will no longer be funneled from the introductory film into a crowded first gallery. Instead of everyone being guided by the audio-tour to the same tiny display case, visitors will be allowed to disperse in two spacious introductory galleries.

The former museum restaurant space, to the right of the entrance, has been converted to the museum's main offices, which had been in a separate building. Cronin said he hopes the move reinforces a new connection between the staff, the museum and the public they serve.

Customer service, in fact, is Atherholt's most frequent theme. "I think it's important for this city to feel proud of this museum," he said. "If there's someone out there who has a problem with what we're doing, or thinks we should do it differently, I want to know about it, so that we can do it better."

Before Atherholt, The only written sign visitors used to see as they left the exhibit was a stern warning, "No re-entry beyond this point." That visitors would not be thanked for coming was "unbelievable," he said.

"Hopefully, when somebody comes here, they will have had a memorable and pleasant experience and will want to come back and see whatever show we put on. Because we know we won't have a 'Titanic' exhibit every time."

Ticket prices have declined, if only slightly, to $13.95 from $14.50. ("It's a gesture," Atherholt said.) The youth discount ticket, for $5.95, has been converted to a full-time student discount so college students can participate. And for the first time, the museum is soliciting members, who will get discounts at the museum store and local restaurants as well as a certain number of free admissions depending on the level of membership.

None of this will work, of course, if the museum does not remain financially viable.

Its current annual budget of $5.5-million is based on an anticipated audience of 400,000 people to see "Titanic."

That's 200,000 fewer than saw "Treasures of the Czars," but more than the audience for either "Splendors of Ancient Egypt" or "Alexander the Great."

Cronin acknowledges that there is no exact science to predicting the size of an audience. But 400,000 seemed like a realistic goal, particularly after this same exhibit broke all previous attendance records at its inaugural venue in Memphis this year.

At last count, Florida International had received more than 76,000 advance ticket reservations, far more than it had for the Czars. Most came from group tour operators, who were badly stung by the last-minute change of plans with the Egyptian show two years ago and who had to be courted back.

Museum officials acknowledge that they still must overcome a residual perception of mismanagement and failure that dogged the museum over the past year or so. "People like to support a winner," Atherholt said. "We know we've got to prove ourselves. There's no way around it."

Cronin surprised a meeting of museum volunteers recently by suggesting that a lot of the museum goals could be combined into one.

"I want to drop the first word out of our name -- the troubled Florida International Museum. I'm serious. We need to change that mindset, with the press, with Betty and Joe on the street, with downtown businesses and with our potential sponsors. After all the negative publicity we've had in the past, I don't blame the news media."

Also see related story: How to get there

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