In recent years museums have moved from the twilight to the spotlight of public attention. This is reflected not only in an increase in the number of museums but in the dramatic growth of their audiences. Today there are some 90 million visits to museums each year, more than double the figure of 20 years ago. In that same period a new museum has opened, on average, every fortnight; there are now about 2,600. Museums are Britain's largest sightseeing draw. They employ more than 18,000 people, excluding the even larger number who support them in a voluntary capacity, and turnover is in excess of £600 million, over two thirds of that from the public purse.
In their first golden age, towards the end of the 19th century, museums had offered - usually free of charge - the populations of the burgeoning new industrial cities vivid insights into the natural sciences, art or archaeology otherwise available only to a privileged minority. Today, growth in museum audiences is fuelled largely by increased leisure, mobility and global tourism. But more important has been the way museums have responded to the rising expectations of their audiences. Everywhere there are sparkling new galleries supported by the very best of public facilities, excellent cafes, restaurants and shops. And behind all that lies the extraordinary cultural asset of incomparable collections, backed by curators, conservators, educators, and designers - all the multifarious skills necessary to make a modern museum effective and relevant.
Directing and managing a great museum is at once singularly privileged and peculiarly demanding. In a learned institution thickly populated with individualists, scholars, experts - and not a few eccentrics - gaining clarity of purpose can be difficult, especially in areas concerned with serving the public. Museums in effect serve two client groups: their collections; and the public who as enquirers, scholars, students, or general visitors demand and deserve access to those collections. There is an inescapable tension in all museums between satisfying the needs of today and protecting the interests of tomorrow - between access and conservation.
There are fundamental issues that need to be addressed about museum funding and management but the debate lies dead in the water, awash in a sea of unchallenged assumptions. Many argue that the taxpayer should pay, whatever the price; museums have a right to public money irrespective of their performance or accountability. There are no signs that the public agrees. Historically, there has been a steady decline in the real value of museum grants paralleled by an equally relentless increase in costs as museums catch up on the backlog of worn out infrastructure, and raise their standards of conservation, presentation and service. Some have made spectacular improvements in efficiency but this implies a more dirigiste management style than has been customary.
Charging for admission raises similar passions. Numbers may drop initially but by nothing like the proportions often asserted; and they soon start to recover as quality improves with increased investment. As visits to free admission museums are counted in a pretty offhand manner and the numbers claimed are not subject to even informal audit their veracity is more than suspect. Pluralists see charging as a legitimate means of generating new money. The interests of those who might otherwise be disadvantaged can be met through carefully tailored, socially sensitive charging, including free periods, discounts or free ticketing for the young, the old or the unemployed and season tickets for those who drop in regularly at lunch time. Since charging was introduced at the Science Museum, 55% of visitors have continued to enter free, but those who pay have contributed more than £28 million of new money. And the public has benefited enormously through enhanced quality of service and longer opening hours, renewed public galleries, repairs to buildings and improved documentation and collections management.
But hyperbole over admission charges merely deflects us from addressing the strategic issues of how museums should best be managed. These centre largely around structure and scale rather than cash. Britain enjoys the benefit of an organisational model which is widely envied, extensively copied and could be more widely adopted. At its heart is the notion of a board of trustees charged with twin responsibilities, of stewardship of the collections and governance of the institution, and operating at arm's length from the seat of political power. Britain's national museums, funded by government, all work within this system.
Despite being in the public domain, museums exhibit some of the characteristics of the unregulated private sector. Although basic standards are set through a voluntary registration scheme, to which most museums now subscribe, there is little co-ordination between individual museums. The recent government policy document, Treasures in Trust, attempts for the first time to establish a national framework, setting out proposals for a more co-ordinated and strategic approach to museum management. It stresses the need for sound professional leadership and suggests that governance by boards of trustees and opportunities for grouping museums into management consortia should be more widely explored.
Adopting these proposals could resolve the increasingly anomalous situation in the local authority sector where, with notable exceptions, museums are not faring well. They have become marginalised within the broad spectrum of a local authority's other responsibilities, subsumed into one of its larger programme areas with consequent loss of identity. Senior management is often in the hands of leisure or recreation professionals with no experience in the sector. Rather than force museums into unsatisfactory partnerships with swimming pools or leisure centres, a more appropriate framework would be to establish new free-standing museum authorities with sufficient critical mass to command high-quality professional management.
Britain's museums hold collections which are of incomparable quality and diversity. Improvements in the training and professionalism of museum managers and structural reform within the sector will do more to make them available to wider audiences than the assumption that public funding is there as of right.
SIR NEIL COSSONS
Director of the Science Museum and companion of the IM
'Museums in effect serve two client groups: their collections; and the public who as enquirers, scholars, students, or general visitors demand and deserve access to those collections. There is an inescapable tension in all museums between satisfying the needs of today and protecting the interests of tomorrow - between access and conservation'.