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Cash-strapped French cultural attractions turn to crowd-funding

A model of the Pantheon, inside the Pantheon Sarah Elzas

French museums and monuments are some of the most visited in the world. None of them is getting any younger, and many need restoration and renovations. With budget cuts across all parts of the government, French cultural institutions are turning to new ways of raising money, including online crowd funding.

Victor Hugo, Emile Zola and Jean Jaurès are some of the 73 luminaries buried or honoured in the crypt below the Pantheon in the centre of Paris. They include the architect of the church above it, Jacques-Germain Soufflot.

Soufflot's triple dome towers 83 meters above the street. But as Isabelle De Ternay, a manager at the site, explains, it is in dire need of renovations.

"There are major parts of the monument that are cracked and are falling," she says.

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At the end of the month, workers will start building build a massive scaffolding structure that will hover over the dome, to start the first phase of the 250-year-old building's renovations, which will cost 19 million euros.

For the first time ever, the Centre des Monuments Nationaux, France's National Monuments Agency, is raising some of that money through individual donations, online.

"We've been getting get less money from the government, and with big needs, we have to experiment new ways of doing our job," explains the Agency's chair, Philippe Bélaval.

This experiment is a venture into raising money through crowd funding, an online site that solicits small, individual donations.

"The Louvre museum had used it for some works of art, but it had never been used for a monuments," says Bélaval.

Audio report: crowdfunding monuments 11/01/2013 - by Sarah Elzas Listen

The Louvre raised over a million euros in 2011 from about 7,200 online donors, to buy the Three Graces, a painting by Lucas Cranach.

That success lead the Monuments Agency to consider doing the same, though the idea came from My Major Company, the site that runs their online fundraising platform.

"We are very proud to have managed to convince them to work with us," says Stéphane Bittoun, My Major Company's General Manager

Indeed, this is a first for the company which started in 2007 as a music label and a site for musicians to raise money. It launched the career of singer Grégoire and raised 100,000 euros to produce his first album.

Sarah Elzas

They have since expanded into books and movies, and now historical restoration.

Bittoun says the Monuments Agency is used to raise funds from big donors, but not small amounts from individuals. He says they pitched the idea as a way of getting the public involved in their heritage.

"Our proposal was... to add a scheme dedicated directly to the audience, the end users: micro, individual sponsorship," he says.

When you go on the website, you see that the Pantheon is one of four monuments for which the Monuments Agency is raising money. There is also the renovation of the drawbridge at the Mont St Michel in Normandy, and two statues, one at the Carcassonne castle in south-western France and one in the St. Cloud Park outside of Paris.

As French people are not used to donating money, particularly to cultural institutions, which tend to receive more state support than private funding, the Agency started with the modest goal of raising 5,000 euros for the Pantheon.

In two months it has raised close to 60,000 euros, a lot more than what they expected, though just a tiny piece of the project's 19-million-euro price tag.

"The idea is not to fund the full amount of the works," explains Bittoun. "The idea behind this, more than the money, more than the fundraising itself, is to have French individuals be part of the project. For people to re-appropriate, to re-own in a different way, their own heritage."

The average donation has been 30 euros, though some have given as little as five euros.

Philippe Bélaval says the experiment has shown that this is a revenue stream that could be tapped in the future.

"In a situation of big need, we can rely on people," he says.

Interactive map of France

Of the four monuments raising money, the two more well-known ones - the Pantheon and the Mont St Michel - are doing the best. And the Pantheon has out-earned the others, by far.

Bélaval thinks it has to do with the pride French people have in their heritage, especially the famous monuments.

"There is really a very strong conviction that it is part of themselves, and that it is one of the elements that makes France distinct from other countries and other parts of the world," he says.

Seven hundred thousand people visit the Pantheon every year, and it will be open throughout the renovation, with an exhibition showing the scope of the work

And to compensate visitors for not being able to see the dome during the work? Admission price is being reduced... by a euro.

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