Cautious support for peer review

Results of pilot peer reviews published
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Sharon Heal
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The results of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport's (DCMS) pilot peer review of three museums have been given a cautious welcome.

The Natural History Museum, National Portrait Gallery and Tyne and Wear Museums were appraised under a new system of self-assessment and peer review.

Although the directors of all three organisations said they were generally happy with the results, they expressed concern about the length of time the reviewers spent at each institution.

Mike Dixon, director of the Natural History Museum, said it was difficult for the reviewers to get a complete understanding of complex organisations in a short visit.

"Asking three people over the course of two-and-a-half days to review what are quite complicated institutions is pretty onerous," he said. Dixon added that there might be a benefit of having more reviewers visiting over a longer period.

Sandy Nairne, director of the National Portrait Gallery, said he was pleased with the results of the review but added that there were aspects of the process that could be improved. "Perhaps the review shouldn't try to look at the whole organisation but should concentrate on six or seven key strands of its work," he said.

It is not clear how the reviews will relate to future funding agreements, and the directors all said they wanted the DCMS to set the parameters of the review more clearly in advance.

Alec Coles, director of Tyne and Wear Museums, said the DCMS needed to think about what it wanted from the process. "There are positive elements, but it needs to look at the mechanics," he said.
Coles added that it was essential that the reviews took the audience into account. "We are not here to impress peers, we are here to impress the public," he said.

A spokesman for the DCMS said no decision had been made about the timescale for rolling out the process to other national museums. "We want to take a step back and review the process before deciding how to take it further, when to start them and the desired frequency."

Arts Council England has published its consultation into peer review and will introduce a new method of assessing its 880 regularly funded organisations from autumn 2009.

The Museums, Libraries and Archives Council is considering how to implement peer review for the hub museums it directly funds.

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