Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1
MONDAY 19 MARCH 2001
YOUNG, KCB AND
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 viewand I have to say I would
still take the viewthat 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
(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
(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
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.
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 ticketI 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.
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