The Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons has published a critical report on the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), focussing on the fall in visitor figures. These slumped by 22% over a five-year period. As the committee stressed, “the V&A has a responsibility to the taxpayer and the public at large to increase the number of visitors and broaden the sectors of society from which they are drawn.”
Visitor numbers at the V&A and its branch museums (Theatre Museum, Bethnal Green and Wellington Museum) went into a serious decline, from 1,630,000 in 1994-95 to 1,270,000 in 1999-2000. This meant that grant in aid subsidy from the government per visit rose to £25 a head, much larger than most of the other London national museums. The Public Accounts Committee also criticised the Department for Culture, Media and Sport for not taking firmer action: government “needs to put in place more rigorous target setting and performance review arrangements.”
As with some of their previous reports, the Public Accounts Committee was sometimes more interested in figures than the realities of the museum world. For instance, they castigate the V&A for the proportion of repeat visitors: “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.” But surely repeat visitors are those who got a lot out of their first visit? And how can one see the V&A’s vast collection on a single occasion?
The verbatim account of the committee’s hearings which took place last March makes depressing reading. On being told that a Fabergé exhibition in 1994 had been highly popular in attracting visitors, Alan Williams MP went on to criticise the museum for its “peculiar” decision not to have held another Fabergé exhibition since then. In his response, V&A director Dr Alan Borg failed to explain why a repeated diet of Fabergé would provide an unbalanced exhibition programme. Dr Borg did not really seem to have his heart in standing up for the museum, following his effective dismissal by the trustees. Edward Leigh MP suggested that most people have no idea of what is in the V&A and there is a problem with its name. Dr Borg simply agreed: “I certainly accept that there is a problem with understanding what the museum does and what it contains... I think we are stuck with the name.”
Last month the V&A reacted to the Public Accounts Committee report by pointing out that visitor numbers increased dramatically last November, with free adult admission and the opening of the new British Galleries. In the coming financial year it expects to attract 1,650,000 visitors, slightly up on 1994-95. The museum’s statement concluded: “The report of the Public Accounts Committee covered a period two years ago. The V&A now presents a totally transformed picture.”
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Repeat visitors a sign of failure, say politicians'