Cultural policy

Controversy over "ethnic targets" at British national museums

The government wants to set precise goals for the number of ethnic minority visitors to museums and make funding dependent on achieving them

The government’s new policy on “ethnic targets” is causing growing anger among Britain’s national museums. Attached to the annual funding agreements between the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and individual museums are a series of targets, including the most controversial one, Performance Indicator number 14a, “estimate of general visitors from ethnic minorities”.

The government’s aim is that it wants to expand public access, particularly among groups which have traditionally been under-represented among museum visitors—and these include members of Britain’s ethnic minorities.

Museums accept this, but the question is how to determine the number of “ethnic minority” visitors and whether a numerical goal is appropriate.

DCMS was unwilling to divulge the targets to The Art Newspaper, pointing out that they would only be laid before Parliament in July. We therefore obtained figures direct from some of the museums.

The National Gallery told us that although it has conducted visitor surveys in the past, it has never asked about ethnicity, and there was therefore no baseline to establish a target. In the end, a goal of 1.5% of ethnic minority visitors was agreed with DCMS for this year and 2001-2. According to a National Gallery spokesman, it interprets this as a percentage of total visitor numbers (both British and overseas), which are running at around five million, giving a target of 75,000 ethnic minority visitors.

The Tate Gallery, however, has a target of 5% for this year, rising to 6% next year. Although the Tate seems to have happily accepted this goal, there seems little logic in it being asked to attract four times as many ethnic minority visitors as the National Gallery. Both are large, very popular institutions in central London and it seems curious that a gallery showing both historic British art and modern international art should attract quite so many more ethnic minority visitors than one displaying primarily Continental paintings up to 1900 (although admittedly the modern international part of the Tate has a wider cultural appeal).

Meanwhile, the British Museum’s target is 11%, or twice as high as the Tate this year.

The National Museums & Galleries on Merseyside, in Liverpool, has accepted a 3% figure.

When the museums gather data in visitor surveys, one of the major problems is to determine who is a member of an “ethnic minority”. DCMS was unwilling to supply a definition, but when pressed, agreed that we could consult their report on “Draft Performance Indicators”, and subtract the grouping “white/British/Irish/any other white background” from five other listed ethnic categories, leaving the minorities (see sidebar).

Another area of confusion is what DCMS means by “general visitors”, and whether this category includes school groups or overseas visitors. Museums we spoke to on this point had various interpretations, but the DCMS “Draft Performance Indicators” report equates “general” with “ordinary” visitors, and goes on to explain that these represent total visitor numbers minus those participating in educational programmes. This suggests that “general visitors” do include those from overseas. When pressed on whether overseas visitors should really be included in the ethnic minority figures, DCMS took a somewhat different line and advised The Art Newspaper that “general visitors generally exclude overseas visitors”, but were unwilling to be more precise.

All this leaves museums in a quandary. If visitors are asked about their ethnic group, they may well be offended, and in a world where so many people are ethnically mixed, it is often difficult to pigeon-hole them into neat categories. If overseas visitors are included, then the exercise becomes completely meaningless (Is an Indian visitor from India a member of an “ethnic minority”? What about an Indian resident in East Africa?).

Even if overseas visitors are excluded, it is still necessary to define UK residents (Is a Japanese businessman working in London for two years a resident?).

The more one considers the problems, the more unworkable it all becomes. Last month a spokesman for one of the national museums explained: “We are not against targets, we just want to make sure they are the right targets. We are not convinced that numerical targets for ethnic minorities is the right way to go.”

“To which of these groups do you consider you belong?”

A question recommended for visitor surveys by the DCMS Draft Performance Indicators report

1. White/British/Irish/any other white background.

2. Mixed/white and black Caribbean/white and black African/white and Asian/any other mixed background.

3. Asian or Asian British/Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi/ Any other Asian background.

4. Black or Black British/Caribbean/African/Any other Black background.

5. Chinese or Other ethnic group/Chinese.

6. Other (please write in).

Source: Unpublished “Draft Performance Indicators” report distributed by DCMS and prepared by Deloitte & Touche and LORD Cultural Resources and Planning.

Another crazy indicator

Among the more curious figures in the latest annual report of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) are those given on the page devoted to the Tate Gallery, on page 161. DCMS, not the Tate, selected what it describes as four Key Performance Indicators. The last one of these records “Staff costs as a percentage of total income”, which nearly tripled from 17% in 1998-99 to an estimated 48% in the current financial year. What can be going on? Is the Tate handing out huge pay increases to its staff? Is it creating endless new jobs? But looking more closely at the Tate’s accounts reveals that total income reached an all-time high in 1998-99 (£74.2 million), primarily as a result of capital coming in for Tate Modern, and total income fell to an estimated £39.6 million in the current year. It is true that the wage bill is still up this year, because warding staff have more than doubled with the opening of Tate Modern. To make the performance indicator even less meaningful, the “staff costs as a percentage of total income” percentage for 1995-96 is based on an inflated income figure which resulted from an insurance payment of £25.6 million received for the two Turner paintings which had been stolen in Frankfurt. This particular set of DCMS figures are not “indicators”—they are meaningless and misleading.

“Staff costs [Tate] as a percentage of total income”

1994-5 3%

1995-6 25%

1996-7 29%

1997-8 20%

1998-9 17%

1999-0 26%

2000-1 48%

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'We’ll have ways of making Muslims like Rubens nudes'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 105 July 2000