What do you do at an art museum?

"First you go to the postcard shop and see what they've got. It's cheaper than buying the guide books which usually aren't that good. Then you find out what the specials are. It's kind of like going to a supermarket -- seriously. w

"Then you hit the best parts and if you keep going back for 75 years, you'll see it all."

That's the advice given by Thomas Hoving -- former director of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and now a star of ABC's "20/20" -- at yesterday's Town Meeting at the Kennedy Center.

The wide-ranging panel discussion entitled "The Museum Explosion" also featured panelists Joseph Duffey, National Endowment for the Humanities chairman, and E. Leland Webber, president of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. The moderator was New York Times reporter Karen DeWitt.

Among the issues they raised was the changing nature of financial support for museums. Once dependent on old private money, institutions are increasingly turning to new government funding. Duffey's agency is one of those new supporters. And, according to Webber, it's much needed: "Inflation is literally saping the life-blood of museums."

But Duffey cautioned, "I think restraint ought to be the order of the day."

Hoving stressed the need for more active promotional efforts by museums: "Modern, hot, glitzy marketing is necessary in modern museums."

Hoving, who emphatically supports charging admission to museums, said of government funding: "The millions of dollars that go to support the Smithsonian is much more than goes to the Met or other museums."

Panelists also noted that the nature of museum services is changing, as more people are joining museums as members and more are coming to be educated. "When I came to the Field Museum," said Webber, "museums we cast in the old mold -- people came in, they looked, and they left. The institution was dark 365 nights a year. Now, hundreds of adults take night classes. Thousands of visitors go on field trips."

Hoving said that he thinks there should be more fine arts programming on television. "My feeling is the visual arts have never been in the visual arts. Television is the biggest free visual arts university in the world."

During the discussion, panel members answered a number of questions ranging from which presidential candidate would provide more museum funding to whether there could be a museum of the future.

Asked how museums pick exhibits, Hoving gave an example of one show that caused a commotion.

"I'm the fellow who put on 'Harlem on My Mind,'" he said. "We were lambasted by everyone -- blacks, Hispanics, South Dakotans, Norwegians, etc. We were told we couldn't even sell the catalogue. Well, that's when the black community discovered the Met. They'd thought it was a private club. Guards wouldn't allow them in unless they pushed their way in."

One of the final questions from the audience was what was each panelist's favorite museum? After some grinning and politic thinking, Hoving picked an Austrian museum and the other two panelists mentioned the Museum of Anthropoligy in Mexico City.