Select Committee on Public Accounts Sixteenth Report


SIXTEENTH REPORT


The Committee of Public Accounts has agreed to the following Report:

ACCESS TO THE VICTORIA AND ALBERT MUSEUM

INTRODUCTION AND LIST OF CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

1 The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) is the National Museum of Art and Design. The museum was established in 1852, shortly after the Great Exhibition of 1851, to inspire and educate British manufacturers, designers and consumers. The V&A's four million objects include costumes, furniture, books, watercolours, metalwork, sculptures and ceramics. In addition to the South Kensington museum, the V&A administers the Theatre Museum, the National Museum of Childhood and the Wellington Museum, which are all based in London.[1]

2 In 2000-2001 the V&A received grant-in-aid of £30.5 million from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (the Department).[2] A Funding Agreement between the Department and the V&A sets out what the museum is expected to deliver, including specified numbers of visitors.[3]

3 On the basis of a Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General,[4] our predecessor Committee examined the Department and the V&A about the V&A's performance in attracting visitors, the action needed to improve performance in broadening access, and monitoring of the V&A's performance.

4 Our main conclusions and recommendations are as follows:

  • As custodian of a unique national collection, the V&A has a responsibility to the taxpayer and the public at large to increase the number of visitors to the museum and broaden the sectors of society from which they are drawn. Between 1994-95 and 1999-2000, however, visitor numbers declined by 22 per cent. Half the V&A's visitors come from overseas and many others (up to 20 per cent at the South Kensington museum) are regular visitors who come more than once a year. The museum appears to have had limited success in attracting new visitors from the domestic market.

  • The V&A is looking to two major capital projects, the redevelopment of the British Galleries and construction of the Spiral, to broaden the museum's appeal and revive its fortunes. However, the British Galleries, which opened on 22 November 2001, represent only ten per cent of the museum's gallery space, and the Spiral will not be completed until 2005 at the earliest. The museum ought also to pay attention to its core business to help increase its appeal to visitors.

  • The Department responded to the V&A's failure to meet its visitor numbers target in 1999-2000 by revising the V&A's target from a 16 per cent increase to no increase over the three years to 2002. Such a large change in the assessment of what was achievable raises questions about the basis on which targets have been set and why the museum's performance fell so far short of expectations. The Department needs to put in place more rigorous target setting and performance review arrangements.

5 In more detail, our conclusions and recommendations are as follows:

On the V&A's performance in attracting visitors

      (i)  The decline in the number of visitors to the V&A group of museums, from 1.63 million in 1994-95 to 1.27 million in 1999-2000 has resulted in the subsidy per visitor funded from the grant-in-aid increasing from some £20 to £25. This was higher than the subsidy at seven other national museums and galleries in London, five of which had levels of less than £10. It is too early to say if the improvement in visitor numbers in 2000-2001 was the beginning of an upward trend (paragraph 10).

      (ii)  People who visit more than once a year appear to have accounted for up to 180,000 of the 880,000 visits to the South Kensington museum in 1999-2000. The number of visits is clearly important, but on its own it gives an inflated impression of the museum's success in attracting a wider audience. The Department and the V&A should consider introducing a further measure of visitor numbers which shows how successful a museum or gallery has been in attracting new and wider audiences (paragraph 11).

      (iii)  The V&A estimates that the introduction of compulsory admission charges led to between an eight and ten per cent reduction in visitor numbers. The introduction of free admission, from 22 November 2001, gives the museum the opportunity to recover lost ground. We expect this to be reflected in future targets agreed between the V&A and the Department (paragraph 12).

On the action needed to improve performance in broadening access

      (iv)  The V&A's programme of special exhibitions is an important factor in determining how successful the V&A is in attracting visitors to the museum. There is a balance to be struck between exhibitions aimed at special interests, and those aimed at wider audiences, but more exhibitions with wider appeal would provide the museum with an opportunity to show what else it has to offer (paragraph 22).

      (v)  One of the V&A's problems is that potential visitors do not know what to expect and its very title may lead to misconceptions about its collections. The V&A says that it is "stuck with the name" and that it is working on the brand image of the museum. The museum needs to promote a clearer understanding among non-visitors of the nature of its collections, perhaps by making more of its position as the National Museum of Art and Design (paragraph 23).

      (vi)  It is important for the future of the V&A to increase its appeal to younger audiences. The V&A lacked evidence on the proportion of state schools visiting the museum compared to other national museums and galleries. The Museum should work to improve significantly its interactive displays. It should also determine which schools are not visiting the museum and why, and promote greater awareness of its Family Programme (paragraph 24).

      (vii)  The V&A needs to take a closer interest in its progress, particularly relative to other museums and galleries, in attracting wider audiences. Information supplied by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on the number of visitors from lower income and disadvantaged groups at other museums and galleries did not support the V&A's own perception of its relative performance. Improved management information on the profile of its visitors is needed (paragraph 25).

On the monitoring of the V&A's performance

      (viii)  The performance of the V&A and the other national museums and galleries is reported annually to Parliament. The V&A's internal auditors validate its performance data to provide assurance to the museum's management. However, the Department does not have any arrangements in place to provide external validation of the V&A's performance, or that of the other national museums and galleries. The inconsistencies identified by the National Audit Office in the way the V&A's targets were set and performance measured, including a change of definition which met the visitor numbers target when it would otherwise have been missed, show the necessity of validation for credible performance reporting. As we have previously made clear, we believe that the Comptroller and Auditor General should undertake this work (paragraph 30).

THE V&A'S PERFORMANCE IN ATTRACTING VISITORS

6 The Funding Agreement between the Department and the V&A includes a range of performance measures and targets covering the V&A's activities. A key performance target is the annual number of visitors to the museum's four sites. The V&A's target over the three years covered by the 1999-2002 Funding Agreement between the Department and the V&A was to achieve a 16 per cent increase in visitor numbers. In the event, visitor numbers in 1999-2000 were 13 per cent lower than in the previous year. The longer term picture is that total visitors to all four V&A museums peaked in 1994-1995 at about 1.63 million but since then there has been a downward trend, with numbers dropping to 1.27 million in 1999-2000 (Figure 1).[5] The V&A told our predecessors that the downward trend had been reversed in 2000-2001 with visitor numbers up by 13 per cent, and that it was forecasting almost 1.4 million visitors for the year.[6]


7 At around £30 million a year the V&A receives the highest grant-in-aid of all the national museums and galleries. It also has one of the highest levels of grant-in-aid per visitor, a figure which has increased from some £20 in 1994-95 to almost £25 in 1999-2000, mainly as a result of the reduction in visitor numbers. The £25 subsidy per visitor to the V&A in 1999-2000 was higher than that at any of the other seven national museums and galleries in London examined by the National Audit Office—in five of these institutions the figure was less than £10.[7] The Department told our predecessors that it was by definition a fluctuating figure, and it monitored year on year movements and discussed any increases with the V&A.[8]

8 Asked about the effect of people visiting regularly on visitor numbers, the V&A told our predecessors that, along with all other museums, it counted the number of visits not visitors. A relatively large proportion of people making a repeat visit visited once a year or less, but there was a core of loyal visitors who visited more than once a month and these accounted for about 50,000 visits a year. There was a total of 880,000 visits to the V&A's South Kensington museum in 1999-2000, by at least 700,000 different people of whom roughly half were overseas tourists.[9]

9 The V&A told our predecessors that visitor numbers had fallen by between eight and ten per cent following the introduction of admission charges in 1996,[10] but the charges had produced significant income and enabled the museum to recover VAT. The VAT issue had been the major obstacle to removing the charges, but in view of the announcement in the March 2001 Budget of a new VAT refund scheme for national museums and galleries offering free admission to the public, the V&A Board of Trustees had agreed to reintroduce free admission as soon as practically possible.[11] On 1 May 2001 the V&A announced that the museum would be free to all visitors in time for the opening of the V&A's new British Galleries on 22 November 2001.[12]

Conclusions

10 The decline in the number of visitors to the V&A group of museums, from 1.63 million in 1994-95 to 1.27 million in 1999-2000 has resulted in the subsidy per visitor funded from the grant-in-aid increasing from some £20 to £25. This was higher than the subsidy at seven other national museums and galleries in London, five of which had levels of less than £10. It is too early to say if the improvement in visitor numbers in 2000-2001 was the beginning of an upward trend.

11 People who visit more than once a year appear to have accounted for up to 180,000 of the 880,000 visits to the South Kensington museum in 1999-2000. The number of visits is clearly important, but on its own it gives an inflated impression of the museum's success in attracting a wider audience. The Department and the V&A should consider introducing a further measure of visitor numbers which shows how successful a museum or gallery has been in attracting new and wider audiences.

12 The V&A estimates that the introduction of compulsory admission charges led to between an eight and ten per cent reduction in visitor numbers. The introduction of free admission, from 22 November 2001, gives the museum the opportunity to recover lost ground. We expect this to be reflected in future targets agreed between the V&A and the Department.

THE ACTION NEEDED TO IMPROVE PERFORMANCE IN BROADENING ACCESS

13 The V&A has embarked on a major redevelopment of its British Galleries, which account for about ten per cent of the museum's display space. These galleries house the collection of objects produced or used in Britain between 1500 and 1900. The V&A sees the project, which has an estimated cost of £31 million, as a major step in revitalising the museum. The V&A said that following the increase in visitor numbers in 2000-2001, it expected the figures to continue to increase with the opening of the refurbished British Galleries.[13] The new British Galleries opened on 22 November 2001.[14]

14 The V&A is also planning another project—the 'Spiral'—which is designed in direct contrast to the existing building and will form both the entrance to the museum and its centre for contemporary art and culture. The 'Spiral' has an estimated cost of £80 million and is scheduled to be completed in 2005 at the earliest. The V&A considered that the 'Spiral' would contribute in a dramatic way to the size of the museum's audience.[15]

15 The V&A told our predecessors that visitor numbers were particularly affected by the special exhibitions it put on, and that since the mid-1990s its exhibitions had not always attracted huge numbers. A series of exhibitions on Fabergé and jewellery and high value consumption goods would bring in a lot of people and there had been a number of exhibitions of that sort, including the recent Art Nouveau exhibition.[16]

16 Numbers were not the only factor the V&A considered in relation to exhibitions. For example, the Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms exhibition in 1999-2000, was aimed at a particular minority community and was never going to be a blockbuster, although it had done rather better than expected and attracted a large number of visitors who had not previously been to the V&A or any other museum. However, the V&A accepted that in future it needed a better balance between exhibitions that were likely to appeal to a wider audience and those that were aimed at a narrower audience.[17]

17 The V&A said that it had carried out research to find out why people did and did not visit the museum, and what it was they wanted to see. This had shown that some people did not know what the museum contained; some found the building forbidding; and some people thought it was not for them. Consultants employed by the National Audit Office found that some visitors considered the museum to be 'academic and stuffy'.[18]

18 The V&A's name does not indicate the nature of its collections. Indeed, its very title may contribute to misconceptions about those collections.[19] Asked if it should put more emphasis on being the National Museum of Art and Design, the V&A accepted that there was a problem with understanding what the museum did and what it contained, and that it needed to get better at telling people what was inside and what it had to offer. It was working with external consultants on the brand image of the museum. It thought that the V&A would have to stay as the museum's name, but agreed that the National Museum of Art and Design 'strapline' was key.[20]

19 The V&A has had difficulty attracting children and families, and research has shown that awareness of the museum's Family Programme is extremely low. In 1999 just 14 per cent of visitors were under the age of 18.[21] Asked what it was doing to encourage children to visit, the V&A said that it had some 300 different programmes for children, and that its activity backpacks had won an award for innovation. The museum was developing the use of interactive displays, with a number already established in its cultural courts. The new British Galleries would contain a range of state of the art interactive displays.[22]

20 Eighty per cent of schools that visited the museum were from the state sector, which accounted for 90 per cent of schools in England. In London and the South East, where most schools visiting the museum were located, 85 per cent of schools were in the state sector. There was anecdotal evidence to suggest that independent schools made more museum visits than state schools and the V&A considered that its schools visits profile was unlikely to be unusual in this respect. The V&A acknowledged that it could do more work to establish which schools never visited the museum.[23]

21 As regards the social mix of visitors, people from the C2, D and E socio-economic groups accounted for 13 per cent of the V&A's visitors in 1999-2000. Information provided by the Department showed that figures for other national museums and galleries ranged from 8 per cent at the Tate to 24 per cent at the National History Museum. The V&A was ranked fifth out of the eight museums and galleries listed. In oral evidence to our predecessors the V&A had said that 10 per cent of its visitors were from these groups and that this was probably better than most other museums.[24] About seven per cent of its visitors came from ethnic minorities.[25]

Conclusions

22 The V&A's programme of special exhibitions is an important factor in determining how successful the V&A is in attracting visitors to the museum. There is a balance to be struck between exhibitions aimed at special interests, and those aimed at wider audiences, but more exhibitions with wider appeal would provide the museum with an opportunity to show what else it has to offer.

23 One of the V&A's problems is that potential visitors do not know what to expect and its very title may lead to misconceptions about its collections. The V&A says that it is "stuck with the name" and that it is working on the brand image of the museum. The museum needs to promote a clearer understanding among non-visitors of the nature of its collections, perhaps by making more of its position as the National Museum of Art and Design.

24 It is important for the future of the V&A to increase its appeal to younger audiences. The V&A lacked evidence on the proportion of state schools visiting the museum compared to other national museums and galleries. The Museum should work to improve significantly its interactive displays. It should also determine which schools are not visiting the museum and why, and promote greater awareness of its Family Programme.

25 The V&A needs to take a closer interest in its progress, particularly relative to other museums and galleries, in attracting wider audiences. Information supplied by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on the number of visitors from lower income and disadvantaged groups at other museums and galleries did not support the V&A's own perception of its relative performance. Improved management information on the profile of its visitors is needed.

MONITORING OF THE V&A'S PERFORMANCE

26 When the visitor numbers target for 1999-2000 was missed the V&A and the Department agreed to revise the targets downwards for 2000-01 and 2001-02. The revised targets were set at the 1998-99 level, with the result that the V&A was no longer required to achieve the planned 16 per cent increase in visitor numbers over the period of the Funding Agreement.[26]

27 The Department told our predecessors that Funding Agreements set out what institutions should deliver in exchange for the grant-in-aid, and whenever an institution missed its targets it was called to account. The Department did not automatically stick to the same targets, because they had to be realistic. In most cases it adjusted targets upwards because most of its institutions exceeded their visitor targets. In the V&A's case it had put the targets down, taking a realistic view, in the light of the outturn for the previous year, about what was achievable.[27]

28 The V&A's performance, which is reported to Parliament, is not independently validated. To obtain assurance for itself, the V&A has asked its internal auditors to validate its performance data.[28] The National Audit Office's examination of the V&A's performance measurement arrangements identified inconsistencies in the way targets were set and performance measured. For example, the V&A changed the basis for calculating visitor numbers in 1998-1999 by including, for the first time, 'other' visitors in its definition which covered visitors who attended the museum for meetings with the museum's staff. The change resulted in the target being met when as previously defined it would have been missed.[29] The V&A told our predecessors that this had been the first year of the new funding arrangements and the way in which it measured visitors had not been agreed with the Department. It had taken the view that visitors who came to the museum to consult the curators were real visitors to the museum, but acknowledged that the numbers could have included people who visited for non-academic purposes.[30]

29 Asked if it agreed with this method for counting visitors, the Department said that it had now made it plain that people such as contractors, suppliers and corporate hire customers should not be counted as visitors.[31] More generally, its aim was to establish a consistent set of definitions for all the national museums and galleries, and to make sure that the Department's museums and galleries produced data on an agreed basis. It considered that this was now the case.[32]

Conclusion

30 The performance of the V&A and the other national museums and galleries is reported annually to Parliament. The V&A's internal auditors validate its performance data to provide assurance to the museum's management. However, the Department does not have any arrangements in place to provide external validation of the V&A's performance, or that of the other national museums and galleries. The inconsistencies identified by the National Audit Office in the way the V&A's targets were set and performance measured, including a change of definition which met the visitor numbers target when it would otherwise have been missed, show the necessity of validation for credible performance reporting. As we have previously made clear, we believe that the Comptroller and Auditor General should undertake this work.


1   C&AG's Report Access to the Victoria and Albert Museum, (HC 238, Session 2000-2001) para 1.1 Back

2   Department of Culture, Media and Sport Annual Report 2001 Back

3   C&AG's Report, paras 1.5, 1.8 and Figure 2 Back

4   C&AG's Report Back

5   C&AG's Report, paras 1.8, 2.1-2.2, 2.4, 2.6 and Figure 7A Back

6   Qs 39-42 Back

7   C&AG's Report, para 2.6 and Figure 6 Back

8   Qs 10-11 Back

9   Qs 99, 106, 109, 158-159; Ev, Appendix 1, p16 Back

10   C&AG's Report, para 1.6; Q5 Back

11   Qs 5, 65; Financial Statement and Budget Report March 2001, Chapter A (not printed) Back

12   V&A News Release, 1 May 2001, 'New V&A Director announces museum will go free for opening of new British Galleries' (not printed) Back

13   C&AG's Report, para 3.12; Q43  Back

14   V&A News Release, 22 November 2001, 'New British Galleries at the V&AG' Back

15   C&AG's Report, para 3.12; Q43 Back

16   Qs 1, 29, 33; Ev, Appendix 1, pp 15-17 Back

17   Qs 1, 29, 33-34 Back

18   Qs 60-61; C&AG's Report, para 3.6 Back

19   C&AG's Report, para 3.8 Back

20   Qs 13, 78 Back

21   C&AG's Report, paras 3.35, 3.37 Back

22   Qs 15-16, 45-51 Back

23   Qs 133-134, 136, 170; Ev, Appendix 1, p17 Back

24   Qs121-124; Ev, Appendix 1, p16; Ev, Appendix 2, p17 Back

25   Q111 Back

26   C&AG's Report, para 2.4 Back

27   Qs 9, 145-146 Back

28   C&AG's Report, para 11 Back

29   ibid, paras 2.3, 2.23 Back

30   Qs 2-3 Back

31   Qs 2-4 Back

32   Q12 Back


 
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