'Chocolate' covered at state museum: But slim budgets squeeze museums


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The state's budget emergency had Albert Ervin digging into closets -- his own and those at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences -- so the classroom attached to the museum's new exhibit on chocolate would have something for children and adults to look at besides bare walls.

From Ervin's own travels, there are books and posters on the rain forest. From an old museum exhibit, there's a board game about monkeys. From the museum's shop, there's a plush parrot, frog and other animals.

As North Carolina faces a budget shortfall ofmore than $3.3 billion, and with less money coming in from endowments and donations, state museums and historic sites are on a cost-cutting mission, trimming programming, running exhibits longer and delaying projects until the future becomes clearer.

It's forcing Ervin and other staffers to improvise.

"I don't honestly think it has diminished the quality of anything in the classroom," said Ervin, the museum's special exhibits coordinator. "I just had to be more creative and frugal."

The state's budget crisis has no effect on the museum's main attraction. "Chocolate: The Exhibition" is a look at the history of chocolate, created by the Field Museum in Chicago. The deal with the Field Museum was signed in November 2006, long before the recession hit. The exhibit opens today and runs through Sept. 7.

'Watch every dollar'

But budget woes have forced museum staffers to pay more attention to other costs, including advertising and the classroom activities developed by museum staff. About two fewer people will be on the floor taking tickets or answering visitors' questions than originally planned, said Angela Baker-James, executive director of the Friends of the Museum. And the museum is relying more on grass-roots marketing efforts, including e-mail to its members.

"We are trying to watch every dollar right now," Baker-James said, "which is not a bad thing at all."

The state Constitution requires the state to balance its budget, and Gov. Beverly Perdue has ordered agencies to cut budgets and all but halt hiring and spending. Perdue, a Democrat, has taken money from reserve accounts and other funds to ensure that the state can pay its bills.

Despite the gloomy economy, state historic sites and museums, many of which are free, are seeing steady attendance, said Maryanne Friend, director of information and marketing services for the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources. But they're also making cuts.

Starting last fall, the state's 27 historic sites, which include the Bentonville Battlefield in Johnston County and Historic Stagville in Durham, started cutting staff visits to local schools. This spring, almost all trips to schools have been eliminated, Friend said.

At the N.C. Museum of History, the museum's pirate exhibit, "Knights of the Black Flag," which opened March 6, has drawn more than 40,000 people, said Ken Howard, director of the museum and the Division of State History Museums.

Howard extended the exhibit from July until January for two reasons: It's wildly popular, and Howard knew he wouldn't have to find the money to replace it with something else in July.

And there has been one upside of the down economy for the history museum. For several years, the museum has been planning and raising money to build a permanent exhibit on the chronological history of North Carolina. The project, which will require moving the museum's classroom, has an estimated cost of between $10 million and to $12 million.

The museum has several million dollars in state and private money for the project so far. With construction costs running lower now than a few years ago, that money could go further.

Howard has been hearing from colleagues around the country that construction bids are coming in 30 to 50 percent lower than expected.

Staff writer Ben Niolet contributed to this report.