Victoria & Albert Museum

Victoria & Albert Museum: too posh for the people?

A National Audit Office Report concludes that visitors are discouraged from visiting the institution because of its “highbrow” image


A report on the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) in London concludes that the museum has a serious image problem and that potential visitors are “put off by the institution’s highbrow reputation.”

The investigation by the National Audit Office, the independent Parliamentary watchdog, argues that the general public has little idea of the riches of the collection, partly because the museum’s name does not indicate its contents. A survey of first-time visitors showed that 55% agreed that they “didn’t know what was in the museum before I visited.” The audit report highlights the challenges which will face incoming V&A director Mark Jones, who takes over from Alan Borg on 1 May.

The National Audit Office study focuses on visitor numbers, and the museum’s failure to reach its targets. The V&A had accepted that visitors should increase by 16% in the three years up to 2001-2. However, in 1999-2000 numbers fell by nearly 200,000 to 1.27 million. This slump resulted in a £700,000 drop in admission proceeds and £500,000 in lost trading profits. Lower numbers also meant that the cost to government of funding increased from £19 to £24 per visitor, one of the highest for a national museum in Britain.

Following the 1999-2000 visitor slump, revised targets were agreed with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). Instead of rising to 1.69 million in 2000-1 and 1.75 million in 2001-2, a more modest target of 1.5 million was set for both years, representing the same level as 1998-99.

In the current financial year which ends this month, a tally of 1.38 million visitors is expected, which is still below the revised target. This figure does, however, represent an improvement on the previous year, mainly due to the success of the Art Nouveau exhibition.

The 1.5 million target for the coming financial year should be met, with the opening of the £31 million British Galleries in November and the prospect of free adult admission. Following the resolution of the VAT problem (see below), the V&A now wants to end charging for admission as soon as possible.

The audit report is critical of the V&A’s failure to “undertake any detailed analysis to identify reasons” for its 1999-2000 inability to reach its target. It also points out that the museum “has difficulty attracting children and families”, with just 14% of visitors to the museum under 18.

One of the problems facing visitors is the museum’s complicated lay-out. Although the new British Galleries will present much more attractive displays, the V&A needs to “be alert to the possibility that other parts of the museum could suffer from the contrast with the modernised British Galleries”, since “many of the 145 galleries have remained largely unchanged for nearly 100 years.”

The audit report also examines access to objects, and questions the validity of another performance indicator in the DCMS funding agreement. Excluding the National Art Library and the prints and drawings collection, the V&A has 377,000 objects, of which a third are on display. Although this leaves two thirds in store, the museum regards virtually all of them as “accessible”, on the grounds that they can be viewed by appointment (except for a very small number which are in conservation or transit). The museum, therefore, claims that it has exceeded its target on access to objects and at least 98% of the collection is “accessible”—even though only 1,500 items in store were actually shown by appointment in 1998-99. DCMS and the the museum are currently considering a new indicator which would measure “the percentage of the V&A’s collections that are on display and accessible to all without having to make special appointments”—a more meaningful figure.

Last month a V&A spokesperson pointed out that there have been major changes since the National Audit Office investigation. Although research into visitor numbers had not been done when the draft report was completed last July, since then surveys have been conducted which have been fed into the museum’s marketing strategy.

A V&A spokesman added: “The report is makes fair criticisms, but a lot has happened during the current financial year, including Art Nouveau and the contemporary programme. Visitors who have come in the past six months may well go away with a very different perception of the museum.”

Who comes to the V&A?

The six types

o Loyal visitors come frequently, are knowledgeable, seek a pleasurable experience, crave self-development, enjoy meeting friends and focus on manageable chunks of the displays to avoid overload.

o Bee-liners are driven by a desire to see a specific exhibit, have expectations which can be high and always plan to return.

o Group trips are planned with specific goals, so time is of the essence.

o Inspiration seekers are from the London area, know the V&A well and seek inspiration on a specific subject or from a particular object.

o Day trippers are non-Londoners with a pre-allocated time slot, come for education and stimulation, and often socialise in the café.

o Tourists have a pre-allocated time slot for a full itinerary and look to see the “best bits”.

Visitor figures

1998-99 1999-00 2000-1 2001-2

Initial targets 1.50m 1.59m 1.69m 1.75m

Revised targets 1.50m 1.50m

Visitors 1.46m 1.27m 1.38m

Visitor figures 1998-99 and 1999-00 are inflated by around 23,000 contractors and others who visited staff, rather than the museum. The 2000-01 visitor figure is an estimate.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Too posh for the people'