Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)




  1. This afternoon we shall be taking evidence on the Comptroller and Auditor General's Report on Access to the Victoria and Albert Museum. We welcome Mr Robin Young before us again, Permanent Secretary at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and Dr Alan Borg, Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Dr Borg, I do not know if you have been before us before but I will try and give you some indication of which paragraph I am speaking about in each question. If I may, I will start with you and Paragraph 2.4 which shows that in 1999-2000 visitor numbers to the V&A were 200,000 lower than in the previous year and Figure 7 shows that there has been a downward trend in visitor numbers since 1994-95. Can you tell us why the visitor numbers have been on the decline since the mid-1990s and what are you doing to halt and reverse this trend?

  (Dr Borg) The visitor numbers of the Victoria and Albert Museum are particularly affected by the special exhibitions that we put on. If I could refer you to Table 22 on Page 32, you will see from that table just how the special exhibitions affect our visitor figures. In the period concerned, particularly the period on which the Report is made, our exhibitions did not attract huge numbers. I should, however, immediately say that numbers are not the only factor that we consider in exhibitions. One of the exhibitions in 1999-2000, the Art of the Sikh Kingdoms, was never going to be a blockbuster exhibition, although it did rather better than our projections. It was intended to work with a particular minority community, obviously in this case the Sikh community, and although it did not score that highly in terms of numbers, it did attract a large number of visitors who had not been to the V&A or indeed any museums. Our survey showed that up to and over 40 per cent of visitors to that exhibition from the Sikh community had ever been to a museum before. So numbers are not the only thing we look at. The other exhibition shown in 1999-2000, A Grand Design, was again never going to be a blockbuster but it did in that case do very much less well than we had hoped. It was a version of an exhibition that had toured very successfully in the States and was shown finally at the Museum.

  2. Okay, I am sure others will come back on that particularly on what has happened to reverse the trend. Let me press on. Paragraph 2.3 tells us that in 1998-99 you included in your visitor numbers people attending meetings with the Museum's staff. Why did you do that?
  (Dr Borg) There were certainly a lot of people attending meetings with Museum staff. The year with which the Report is concerned with was the first year of the new funding arrangements and the way in which we measured visitors was not agreed with the Department. Indeed, you will see that is referred to under paragraph 1.9. We took the view—and I have to say I would still take the view—that visitors who come to the Museum to consult the curators, whether they bring an object for identification or whether they are just seeking information about conservation of an object, are real visitors to the Museum. Subsequently, after the efficiency review we agreed with the Department to exclude those visitors but at the time it seemed to us that it was reasonable to put them in.

  3. Would this number include salesmen and auditors possibly?
  (Dr Borg) It could possibly because someone who comes to the Museum with an appointment for a department is not asked at reception "what is the purpose of your appointment with the department?" The great majority are for academic purposes of the Museum.

  4. Do you agree with this method, Mr Young?
  (Mr Young) We have made it plain in our new definition that the types of visitor that should not be counted include contractors, suppliers and corporate hire customers. I think I should add that even an auditor can get inspiration from a fine exhibition!

  5. I will let you know if I observe it! Let's turn to Paragraph 1.7. What is the position regarding the future of admission charges to the V&A and what is your assessment of the impact these have had on visitor numbers?
  (Dr Borg) We introduced admission charges because we had little alternative. We looked at the time at the options and judged that these included such things as closing for a day or two a week. We took the painful decision to introduce charges fully aware that this would reduce visitors but it seemed to us at the time the least worst option. It did indeed reduce visitors. We had allowed for a reduction of up to 15 per cent. In fact, our calculation showed somewhere between eight and ten per cent was the reduction. I am delighted, however, to be able to say that in view of the changes announced in the Budget, the Board of Trustees have agreed to reintroduce free admission to the V&A just as soon as is practically possible.

  6. Paragraph 3.23 is my next point which notes that space limitations mean that only 35 per cent of the South Kensington Museum's main collections are on display at any one time. What is the rate of turnover between the items in store and the items on display, and how often do you review the need to retain items in your stored collection?
  (Dr Borg) That varies very much with the particular collection. Some of the items in some of the collections, for example prints and drawings and textiles, are very sensitive to environmental conditions, particularly light, and therefore things like water colours or Indian miniature paintings or early textiles can only be shown for comparatively short periods and will be changed at least every 12 months or so. Other items which are more stable and sometimes also of course perhaps more difficult to move, like large pieces of sculpture, are likely to stay on show for much longer. Those that stay on show for longer are the best examples and the ones people are most anxious to see.

  7. Have you done any analysis to see whether or not items in your store have been on display in the last ten years or something like that?
  (Dr Borg) The individual curators of departments will know precisely which items have been on show and which ones have not been on show in recent times. There will, almost certainly, be quite a large number of objects which have not been on show for a long time, if ever.

  8. I am sure others will want to pursue the management of that. Let me finish with one question to you, Dr Borg, before I move to Mr Young. What lessons about increasing visitor numbers and revitalising V&A's image have you learned from other museums?
  (Dr Borg) We learn, I hope, a lot from other museums. We talk frequently to our colleagues in other museums. We study their marketing plans and so on. In terms of recent developments it is very striking how the new developments in a number of the major London museums, most obviously perhaps Tate Modern, have increased visitors very dramatically. That is a lesson which we had taken to heart even before Tate Modern happened and you may be aware that the V&A has proposals to build the Spiral Building by Daniel Libeskind which will not only provide a home for our contemporary collections but will be an architectural icon which will bring very many new visitors to the V&A.

  9. Others will come back on that. Let me move on to Mr Young and can I go back to Paragraph 2.4 and Figure 4. The Report shows that the V&A has failed repeatedly to meet its agreed targets for visitor numbers, and the prime reaction seems to have been to revise the target downward. What else have you done?
  (Mr Young) That was not all that we did but I agree that was one of the things that we did. What we do in these new funding agreements (which no doubt people will be asking about further) is we have introduced a new system of funding with various indicators and targets which are an agreement between the Department and the institutions about what they will deliver in exchange for the grant-in-aid. Whenever an institution misses any of those targets we have the chairman in to call them to account, talk about the reasons for that. It does not mean we automatically stick to the same targets because the new target has to be realistic, so we do adjust them. In most cases we adjust targets up because most of our institutions exceed their visitor targets. So this is not a general pattern you are seeing here. In most cases we put the target up; in the V&A's case we put targets down, taking a realistic view about the achievable target now we knew what the outturn was in the year in question.

  10. Others will come back. It will be quite interesting to see how that interplays with Dr Borg's comment about special exhibitions at some point perhaps. The next question relates to Paragraph 2.6 and Figure 6. The grant-in-aid per visitor amounts to something like £25 per visitor, which is positively operatic proportions. Do you have a view on that?
  (Mr Young) Yes we do and of course it was at our suggestion that all our museums and galleries are having now to produce this figure which was not part of the funding agreements before. I would say, though, looking at Table 6 on Page 16, it is literally an expression per year of the sum of grant-in-aid divided by the number of visitors so it can fluctuate a lot. For example, in the year before last, the penultimate year, it was the National Maritime Museum which was top of the charts in terms of the highest grant-in-aid per visitor.

  11. That is top of the charts?
  (Mr Young) I meant top on the piece of paper, but I mean bottom of the charts in other respects. In the list of who had the highest grant-in-aid per visitor last year the Maritime Museum was top but because of a fluctuation in the year-on-year figures you can go up and down. We are very interested, however, in the movement, not just the point in the figure, the sum of money of grant-in-aid, but the movement between. Certainly it does worry us and it is discussed with the chair when the figures go up.

  12. In my final question to you, before I open it up, it is really two in one, I want to talk about paragraphs 2.3 and 2.26. The NAO identified inconsistencies in the way that the V&A sets targets and measures poor performance, and this Committee in the past has felt that independent validation is essential to performance reporting, although in museums performance is not independently validated. What is your stance on both of these things and what is the position with respect to other national museums and galleries?
  (Mr Young) The Department's aim was to first establish a consistent set of definitions of all of the data and monitoring that we ask the museums and galleries to carry out. What the Report shows is there is nothing wrong with the internal controls within all of our galleries and institutions, but rather they were not working to the same definitions. One important aim of our Efficiency Review, which is described in paragraph 1.9 of the Report, was to make sure that our museums and galleries produced data on an agreed basis. This is exactly what we have done and we are now happy they are all producing data to the definitions we have set out. On the general issue about whether they should be externally validated, I am obviously aware of the general stance taken by this Committee, but as I understand it there has been an agreement with the V&A between the external auditors, the NAO and the internal auditors about the way this is handled. I do not think I am empowered to talk to the general Government stance on the response to the PAC on external validation. We are keen that the internal auditors of all of our institutions should ensure us that the figures are being produced according to the definitions that we have laid down consistently for the first time.

Mr Leigh

  13. I rather enjoy going to the V&A, and I have been many times, but I am rather worried about it. We are talking about a lot of money, £30 million. I have to say, I have had no success whatever in persuading any members of my family to go to the V&A. There is a problem with the title, and I see you mention this in paragraph 3.8. Would you accept that most people have no idea what is in the V&A? Perhaps you should put far more emphasis on its title of the National Museum of Art and Design?
  (Dr Borg) I certainly accept that there is a problem with understanding what the Museum does and what it contains. It was a problem which I addressed in, if you like, a lighthearted fashion two or three years ago when I wrote a leader in the Friends magazine for the V&A, in which I offered a bottle of champagne to the friend that could come up with the best alternative name to the Victoria and Albert Museum. Much to my surprise this was taken up by the press and media and there was an outcry against changing the name and I was vilified for this appalling suggestion. I think we are stuck with the name. I do agree that the strapline that goes with it is key. I do not think that we have it right necessarily. We are working hard to try and get it right at the moment and using external consultants on the whole brand image.

  14. I have no objection to the name or the style or anything in it because I was a young fogy and now I am an old fogy. Really in the modern world you have to try, do you not, and encourage younger people to go along. I enjoy wandering round looking at church vestments and chalices and stained glass, but is this swinging modern Britain? Is this the way to get millions of people to visit shows in the middle of London?
  (Dr Borg) It is one of the things that the V&A does, but the V&A does also do swinging, modern Britain. We have our contemporary programme, particularly in popular areas like fashion. We are a great fashion museum and some of our current initiatives, like Fashion in Motion, where you see leading couturiers bringing their models and latest work into the museum, do attract a new audience. We now open once a month on Friday evenings for a contemporary evening and it very interesting to see that that does attract a different, much younger audience. I agree we do need to do more of that.

  15. Can I go on to paragraph 3.35, again on the same theme, programmes for children and families. I spend a lot of time taking my children around the other museums in South Kensington, I have a family ticket—I do not quite know why the family ticket does not extend to the V&A, I might be wrong about that, you might just answer that in a moment. You correctly say, "The V&A considers that the nature of its collections is a key reason for the difficulty—`no dinosaurs'". Indeed, I took my son to see the dinosaurs only on Friday. Having said that, I think you are being very unimaginative about this. You just do not seem to be in the business, perhaps you think you should not be in the business, of actually attracting more children to your museum. Let us go back to 3.22, "Most visitors", you seem to rather like this phrase, "interviewed by our consultants liked what they perceived to be an `old school' and `purist' approach by the V&A". You do not seem to be very interested in interactive displays. You do not make any effort, as far as I can see, to encourage children to come and visit your Museum? Please assure me that I am wrong?
  (Dr Borg) I think I can assure you that you are wrong. At the moment we have over 30,000 children a year coming to over 300 different programmes organised for them. One of those programmes, the Backpack Programme last year won a Gulbenkian award for innovation. We have done a series of highly innovative programmes with children: can I instance one of them. We have a photography gallery, which is sponsored by Canon, and Canon have lent us digital cameras, which we have given to schools, school parties and parties of children, and those children go round the Museum on a particular task. For example on one occasion they visited India, pretended they were on holiday in India, made digital photographs into which they could put themselves and these were then put on the screen on a post card. They could flip over the post card on the screen, put a message on it and send it to all their friends. The best entries went up on our website. That was enormously popular and quite imaginative. I cannot think of another museum that is doing programmes of that sort.

  16. I am worried about the phrase in paragraph 3.35, "The V&A is also aware of the need to take account of the vulnerability of its objects, which can make open display, as distinct from display cases, problematic". If you are talking about a National Museum of Design, surely to get young children to come along you have to draw them in far more. They are going to, in this modern age, walk past objects behind glass, are they not? Look at what is going on over the road, which is fantastic for children.
  (Dr Borg) It is always a problem when you have to glaze objects. I would personally prefer not to glaze anything in the Museum. If objects are valuable or delicate they have to be glazed. Therefore, you have to look at other solutions. You have already mentioned one that the V&A has not developed in a huge way in the past but is developing now, that is the use of interactives. We do have a number of interactives in our cultural courts. In the new British galleries opening later this year there will be a much wider range of interactives and they will be seen as state of the art ones. I have seen many of them in preparation and I think they will be much used and lead the way for the next decade in museum interactives.

  17. Thank you for that. Do you massage your figures to the extent that you include all of these educational groups that come? Can you give me some feel for how that breaks down between ordinary visitors who pay and these educational groups? Are you including in those the people who go along, parents trying to help the school for the afternoon, teachers, and all of the rest of it? I am trying to get the feel for the number of real visitors who come.
  (Dr Borg) We count as educational groups formal educational groups that are booked to come to the Museum. We do not count the casual group that simply turns up and organises, often without telling us that they are coming, their own particular programme. The groups we know about are the ones that contact us, ask for information and work with us in various ways, as I say, that includes over 30,000 children a year.

  18. Perhaps I did not express myself, how are these figures worked out? Presumably, every person in this school visiting or this class visiting the Museum goes towards the total. What do you include in your total, the helpers, the parents, the teachers? Who gets into the total?
  (Dr Borg) Everyone coming as a visitor is included as a visitor. Schools normally come with one or two teachers[1].

  19. You do not think this is some kind of massaging the figures then?
  (Dr Borg) No, I do not.

1   Note: See also Q184-185 and Appendix 1, page 15 (PAC 127). Back

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