Museums Are Going With Flow : Trends: To boost income, many are offering themed products--such as Pilgrim beer.


About the only history most people associate with beer and potato chips is one of indigestion and regrettable overindulgence.

But two museums, Mystic Seaport in Connecticut and Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts, are out to show otherwise--and to make some money.

Mystic, a re-creation of a 19th-Century seacoast community, recently began marketing a line of potato chips harking back to the first chips invented in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in 1853.

And Plimoth Plantation, a preservation of a 1627 Pilgrim settlement, has unveiled Plimoth Rock Ale, a beer brewed from corn malts similar to what the Pilgrims used soon after they arrived in America.

Blame a weak economy for the marketing ploys.

"We're seeing a lot more aggressive strategies . . . that are all designed to get income from more than just people coming in the door," said Laura Roberts, executive director of the New England Museum Assn., which represents about 200 museums and historical attractions.

Nationally, museum attendance has remained stable. But many museums are being squeezed by shrinking state and federal budgets, according to Patricia Williams, deputy director of the American Assn. of Museums.

So while museums have always run gift stores to supplement income, licensing products is seen as an important revenue generator.

At the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan, for example, which chronicles the country's industrial revolution, visitors can buy reproductions of any of the more than 100 artifacts from the 18th and 19th centuries, including lamps, furniture, clocks and pottery.

At Conner Prairie in Indiana, a re-creation of an 1836 rural Indiana town, salt-glazed and spongeware pottery popular during this era have been big sellers.

Sturbridge Village in central Massachusetts, which re-creates an 1830s rural community, recently began selling 19th-Century plants and trees from seeds saved by gardeners over the years. One of the biggest sellers has been apple trees that once dotted the Sturbridge landscape.

The village's horticultural program, which includes garden tools and accessories as well as plant material, is expected to bring in about $50,000 next year, according to Sturbridge's president, Alberta Sebolt George.

And the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, which already has an extensive licensing program, recently entered a licensing agreement for an educational computer software program called "Mystery at the Museums."

At Plimoth Plantation, attendance has declined 25% since 1988. In response, the plantation recently undertook a campaign to intensify its fund-raising and license products such as Plimoth Rock Ale.

Mystic Seaport licensed its Mystic potato chips for sale in New England last year after selling them at the museum for two years. The seaport is expected to net about $12,000 this year on sales of more than $1 million.

With all the products being introduced, some in the museum business recognize the potential for diluting their historical mission.

"There's a danger that you begin to get an image of these places as not museums, but bookshops and stores and cafes," Roberts said.

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