Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60 - 79)



  60. You have carried out research to find out why the numbers have declined?
  (Dr Borg) We have carried out research to find out why people come, why people do not come, what it is that they want to see and what new things they want to see.

  61. Why do they not come?
  (Dr Borg) They do not come for a variety of reasons, some of which have been touched on already. People are, in some instances, unaware of what the museum contains; some people find the building forbidding; some people think it is not for them. It is getting across to the public that do not come what it is that the V&A has to offer.

  62. I might come back to that in minute or two. I just want to go on to the museum charges. I can remember being on the Education Select Committee a number of years ago when we did a rather extensive investigation into charging for museums—that must be almost 10 years ago now—and we came to the conclusion that it was a bad thing. You told the Chairman that since the museum charges were introduced admissions were down by 15 per cent, did you say?
  (Dr Borg) About 10 per cent, we were forecasting 15 per cent, but it went down by 10 per cent.

  63. Why were they introduced?
  (Dr Borg) Because the Museum was unable to balance its budget without taking some severe measures.

  64. If you were unable to balance your budget and you put charges on, presumably that would reduce your budget because less people were coming in?
  (Dr Borg) No. When people were coming in before we were not making an income from them. It was a difficult decision, but we were faced with very high running costs and the way we decided to balance the budget was to charge rather than to reduce the services by closing on one or two days a week.

  65. It was not very successful introducing charges.
  (Dr Borg) Charges have produced a significant income and they have also enabled the Museum, up to the last budget, to recover VAT, and that has been very important for us. The major obstacle in removing charges has been the VAT issue rather than the charge itself.

  66. It seems to be a chicken and egg situation, does it not, because the more you charge the less visitors you get and the worse your balance sheet becomes. If you look at Figure 6, the V&A grant-in-aid is something like £24 per head of visitor, whereas if you look at the other extreme, if you like, the National Portrait Gallery is something like £5 per head per visitor. This clearly shows you have a dilemma, does it not?
  (Dr Borg) It shows we have a dilemma, but you have to look behind that sort of figure; the National Portrait gallery has a few thousand objects, the Victoria and Albert has four million.

  67. I am not sure I understand the point?
  (Dr Borg) The more objects there are the more it costs to look after them.

  68. Three quarters of them are locked away.
  (Dr Borg) They still require to be looked after, to be maintained, preserved and made available to the public.

  69. It seems to me the less the number of visitors you get the higher your charges go up in terms of per head subsidy?
  (Dr Borg) The higher the cost per visitor, yes.

  70. Yes. Mr Young, when does the position become untenable?
  (Mr Young) One reason we introduced the system of funding agreements and the consistent collection of data was so we could have exactly that discussion. Before the last two years there were no figures comparable for all museums and galleries which showed, for example, the grant-in-aid per head and the cost per visitor, and so on. We now have a battery of indicators set out in this Report in one of the appendices, which sets out all of the indicators and targets, for the first time, we have for all 17 of our national museums and galleries.

  71. You are still not answering the question.
  (Mr Young) I was coming to that. When they hit and miss our targets we call the Chairman and the Director in to account to us and we discuss what they intend to do about it. In this case the V&A in South Kensington have produced a 13 per cent increase in visitors. We are in discussions with them now, in light of the Chancellor's statement in the budget, which would enable the trustees to make the Museum go free, if they so decide. We have heard their wishes and we are going to discuss the increase in business further. They have already turned the ship around, to use Dr Borg's tanker, but in discussion with them we are going to urge them to go further and increase the number.

  72. You still have not answered the question, at what stage do you say, "We have to pull the plug here"? Does it reach £25 per head, £30 per head, £40 per head, or what?
  (Mr Young) The whole objective of our discussion is to turn it around. We see it reducing. If it fails we will have to carry on discussing it with them. It is a national collection.

  73. Would you ever pull the plug?
  (Mr Young) My objective is to turn these things around, to keep these priceless collections open to the public.

  Mr Steinberg: I can remember when I was Chairman of Finance at local authority that because of the cost of £1.25 in grant-in-aid per swim in the swimming baths the plug was pulled, if you like.

  Mr Leigh: Literally.

Mr Steinberg

  74. There was not very many people swimming in that.
  (Mr Young) Our aim in all of these discussions is to stop that situation and to reverse the trend and increase the visitors.

  75. Can we go on to targets? We have sat here now for four or five weeks and we have discussed targets, we have discussed targets with the Dome, we have discussed targets with the Leeds Armoury, and I get the impression that these targets are cynical ways of justifying the existence of the Museum. The targets are adjusted at the end of the day to achieve what you want to achieve, in other words you do not have to do anything radical, all you do is you change the targets, and say, "We have now achieved our targets", and it just goes on and on and on, it sort of bubbles long. How serious are the targets?
  (Mr Young) Extremely. We are doing really rather well by contrast with some of the other projects that you referred to this year 2000-2001.

  76. You can have as many targets as you like, but it really all boils down to attracting visitors.
  (Mr Young) 20 per cent more visitors have been attracted to our 17 museums and galleries in 2000-2001 than the previous year, a 20 per cent increase, which I hope you agree is not bad. If we carry on doing that that is good news. Admittedly some of that is caused by Tate Modern, however even for the rest there is a healthy increase in the numbers, we are talking about 28.3 million people.

  77. I must confess I did not know what was in the Victoria and Albert Museum. When my kids were younger my wife used to come down to London and take the kids to all of the museums, she was an educationalist. I said to her, "What did you see in the Victoria and Albert Museum when you were there?" She said, "I cannot remember". Does she have a bad memory—I suspect she might have—or was she not all that impressed? I suppose it is not a fair question, however she could tell me what she saw in the Portrait Museum, she saw portraits. She could not tell me what she had seen in the Victoria and Albert. It did not make a great impression on her.
  (Dr Borg) If your wife was visiting more than a decade ago then I would sympathise because the Museum has made very large strides in re-displaying its collections over the last ten years and I would like to think that if she comes now she will remember.

  78. Again, we have got the Leeds Armoury and we have got the Dome. When research was being done to find out what the attractions were, they asked people coming out, and they said it was very good. You would not expect them to say much else really, and here 90-odd per cent said it was very good. What you have not seemed to have done is any research of people who have not been and asked them what they want and why they have not been. Surely the research should be done the other way? Why does that research not appear to have happened?
  (Dr Borg) It has now happened. We have done research on why people do not visit and there is a whole series of reasons, one of which is not knowing what is in the museum, also they find the museum physically rather formidable, and we need to get better at telling people what is inside.

  Mr Steinberg: I have got a message saying "your plug has been pulled". I suspect he does not want me to ask any more questions.

  Chairman: Alan Campbell?

Mr Campbell

  79. We might all struggle to answer the question what is a museum like the V&A for so let me ask a more straightforward question; who is it for?
  (Dr Borg) Who is it for?

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