Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60 - 79)



  60. You have described free admission as a blunt instrument. Why?
  (Sir Neil Chalmers) Because I think that it enables more people to come. People come more often. Again, it is early days in terms of figures showing what percentage of people are making repeat visits. The information that we have thus far indicates that we are not actually changing the social spectrum of visitors who come to the museum; it is very much the same kind of visitors as before but coming more often.

  61. Does that mean you were not doing your job very well before, because you had not got a wider spectrum, or that you did incredibly well because you have kept the same people but they are coming back more?
  (Sir Neil Chalmers) I would like to think it is because we were doing a good job, but I think it shows that the toughest job of all with museums is to target and successfully attract visitors who would not normally think of going to a museum.

  62. Clearly, you did not manage to do that when you had to pay to go in.
  (Sir Neil Chalmers) I think we managed as successfully as any other national museum. If you look at the spectrum—and Sharon Ament could give you the actual social mix, if you like—we have a very good mix. What I am saying is going free is not the instrument to broaden social diversity.

  63. So going free or charging has no impact at all. It is what you are doing in your outreach and how you manage yourself that is the important thing.
  (Sir Neil Chalmers) I think it is very much how we interact with and reach particular segments of the community.

  64. I come from the West Midlands. How do you reach people in the West Midlands?
  (Sir Neil Chalmers) At the moment we have exhibitions which travel around the country.

  65. Where do they go in the West Midlands?
  (Sir Neil Chalmers) I cannot answer that straight off. We have the Wildlife Photographer of the Year, for example, which goes to venues throughout the country.

  66. You see, I think you should be able to answer that. It is not a trick question. The West Midlands is a big area, and the fact that you, in your senior position, cannot answer what is a very wide-ranging question I think shows up a very real problem in what you are doing, frankly. Do you accept that criticism?
  (Sir Neil Chalmers) No, I do not, because we lend our objects and our exhibitions to literally scores of galleries and museums, and to other venues such as shopping malls and other centres throughout the land, and the fact that I cannot, unprepared, answer your specific question of what location we have sent them to in the West Midlands . . .

  67. I am being very general. I am saying any part of the West Midlands with anything that you have done, and you, at the top, cannot answer that. I find that very disturbing. I actually go to the Natural History Museum quite often, and I would be very aware if something was coming to the West Midlands. I should have expected you to be made aware because you would be in contact with somebody like the West Midlands MP. I certainly know of other galleries when they are doing that sort of thing. I think there is a problem here with how you are actually interfacing with the public. Also, on the scientific resource, your collection is a scientific resource, but as a museum operating, the public trot round and look at dinosaurs and things—and I love it; I do not knock it, but we do not really get the science. I read the labels. They are aimed at 13 years and below as far as I can see. That is accessing science for 13 years and below, but in terms of a national major science institution, behind the scenes how are you communicating?
  (Sir Neil Chalmers) I would invite you to come to the Darwin Centre, which the Queen opened yesterday. That is a major answer to that very question. It is the first phase of a two-phase project. I believe it is a major way forward of opening the museums of science to the public. The result will be, when the second phase is completed, that we will have moved from having less than one per cent of our objects on show to some 80 per cent. We have the opportunity now, every day, seven days a week, for our scientists to come out into a display area where they can give demonstrations about their collections. We talk about them as involvement. It is not a lecture; it is a discussion about issues of the day. They are aimed at an audience which is more adult than the typical young child audience, which we find a lot of, I am glad to say, in our major galleries. We also have behind-the-scenes guided tours.

  68. As it happens, I went to the Darwin Exhibition and was amazed at how small it was for the amount of money that has been spent on that phase. I did listen to a scientist talking, and he was extremely good. He was addressing mainly adults and he was addressing us like 13-year olds. He said, "how many of you know London? Under your feet there is this." It was exactly like talking to 13-year olds. He was very good, but he was targeting 13-year olds. I was not getting any sense of real science here; I was getting a sense of populist—and believe me, I have written this stuff so I know it—skating over the edge, enthusing people. That is all very good, but not heavyweight science.
  (Sir Neil Chalmers) I have been to some ten or a dozen of those presentations since the Darwin Centre opened, and I would simply say I disagree with you and I would ask you to come back again and to get a wider range.

Mr Doran

  69. The Chairman has made the point that you did comparatively well out of this funding round, but in your submission to us you did express some concerns about the process which has led us here, and in particular you make the point that there is no formal bidding process and no formula for considering performance. Could you expand a little on that? I am interested to know exactly how you would see the ideal.
  (Sir Neil Chalmers) This picks up on a comment that Neil MacGregor made a few minutes ago when he said the process was opaque. We write what we think is a very clear statement of what our future funding needs are for the museum, setting out what our major needs are and how we are fulfilling government objectives in terms of the funding agreement that currently exists. What emerges is a very short letter saying, "We are now going to give you a sum of money." That will be a grant-in-aid, and there is sometimes, as there was in a letter my Chairman received yesterday, some additional money—some very welcome additional money—for specific projects. There is no understanding at all of how those figures were reached, and what weight, if any, was placed upon the arguments we put to the Department. I would like to see at least the beginnings of a dialogue in that direction, so that we know that our arguments are being taken note of and agreed with or disagreed with. That would at least be a beginning.

  70. Is that the way it has always been?
  (Sir Neil Chalmers) I think it is fair to say yes. I have been the Director of the museum for 14 years now and that is exactly how it has gone.

  71. You make a case and are handed some money. In some years it may just be the normal percentage increase that everybody gets and in some you might get a little bit more or a little bit less, but you do not know what you are doing right and what you are doing wrong, in a strict financial sense.
  (Sir Neil Chalmers) No. We have an annual meeting with officials, who go through our funding agreement and they compare what we said we would do in terms of targets with what we have actually achieved, and we do not know how the outcome of that meeting is then fed into the funding allocation that is made.

  72. In a situation where you have a special project which may require more funding—a major extension or something of that sort, not an exhibition, or a major repair to the gallery—is there a process for making separate bids on these issues alone?
  (Sir Neil Chalmers) There is not a process. We certainly put in special bids, but we take the initiative ourselves. Sometimes those are successful, I am glad to say. I can give an example. We had a problem with one particular building, the Palaeontology Building, and those of you who know the Natural History Museum will recognise it as the rather modern, concrete building on the corner of Cromwell Road and Exhibition Road—not everybody's favourite building. It had major design defects, which were not of the museum's making; it was designed and built by the Property Services Agency. Those design defects became apparent, and there was a very large bill attached to their remedy, so we went to the Department some four years ago and made the case, and I am very pleased to say that the then Secretary of State, Chris Smith, gave us some additional funding to help us remedy that. There is not a process; you just go and make your case.

  73. There is no process whereby you sit down with the Department and they set out targets for you and you set out long-term development plans of how you see the museum developing and you reach a formula which will enable that to happen?
  (Sir Neil Chalmers) It does not happen like that. In fact, we have moved away from that somewhat. Funding agreements have become very much the dominant way of having a dialogue with government, and they do not take account of long-term perspectives, where you are trying to go with your museum.

  74. What are your targets? How do you measure each year whether you are succeeding or not? You have the straight figures of people coming to the museum, but what else do you have?
  (Sir Neil Chalmers) The things that are easy to measure are things of just that sort: how many visitors you get, what section of the community they come from. You can also, on the scientific side, say how much research is going on, or how many peer review research papers you publish. What you do not get is the qualitative information, which is crucial to running a museum successfully, because you want people to be satisfied, inspired, enthused. We want our science to be of great benefit to people, and we want it to have a long-term impact in the scientific community. It is those things which are much more difficult.

  75. You also made a point about your inability to borrow. I presume that is common to all the museums we are discussing.
  (Sir Neil Chalmers) It is indeed.

  76. How would you see that changing if you had the opportunity to persuade ministers?
  (Sir Neil Chalmers) If I may, I will defer to my Director of Finance, who I think can give a more detailed response than I could.
  (Mr Greenwood) One of the continuous problems that we have is trying to allocate scarce cash in annual and triennial budgeting rounds. We are in a situation where we are trying to determine the most appropriate use of that particular cash for a return. If one were just looking at a normal business, of course, one could do it on net return, profit, etc, classic investment models, but when one is investing in, let us say, scientific equipment or a gallery, it is more difficult to actually ascertain what the direct return will be and the qualitative aspects that we were talking about. One has that constant conflict between trying to, say, invest in income-generating activities, where one can plough back the profit into the business, as opposed to investing in other areas of museum core activity. If one were able to borrow, for example, say, on income-generating activities, one could ring-fence those particular activities and go to a bank and say, "Here we have a good business case. Does it stack up? Are you prepared to lend on the basis that there will be a return in future years that can pay off the loan?" or whatever. That is what the freedom to borrow could actually do.

  77. Until we can reach a situation where you can do that, there will be no PFI projects in any of our museums?
  (Mr Greenwood) We are looking for PFI projects at the moment. We are looking there more in terms of large-scale developments rather than specific, small-scale income-generating activities.

  78. Where is the restriction? Is that government-imposed or is it part of your constitution?
  (Sir Neil Chalmers) It is not part of our constitution. As the British Museum, our powers are defined by the British Museum Act 1963. They are identical. It is defined by government accounting.

Mr Flook

  79. What impact do you think popular culture has had on your funding? I mean things like well-known films about dinosaurs, etc. How important has that been in the Government giving you more money than the British Museum?
  (Sir Neil Chalmers) I have never noticed that to feature in our discussions with the Government, and I do not think it directly affects their attitude towards us. Certainly popular culture is important to us, I think in terms of short-terms peaks of interest. Sharon Ament may be able to give more direct figures but, for example, when Jurassic Park was first released on an unsuspecting world, we had, by good fortune rather than by good management, a few months earlier opened our dinosaur exhibition, so we had a second huge peak of visitors.
  (Ms Ament) Last year in January we introduced a smelly T-rex, which came in at the point where Walking With Dinosaurs was very current, and we had 400,000 visitors come to that—and we were charging at the time. It is to do with popular exhibits recapturing the public's imagination. It works, especially for families.

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