Can’t get no satisfaction

Why are local authority museums and galleries going down in the public's estimation? By Patrick Steel
Patrick steel
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Public satisfaction with museums and galleries is down 7 per cent across England according to the latest Best Value Performance Indicator (BVPI) survey, published every three years by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

The survey shows the level of satisfaction of 500,000 respondents with local authority services, including waste disposal, parks and bus services. It uses a five-point scale ranging from 'very satisfied' to 'very dissatisfied'. Only 42 per cent of respondents registered satisfaction with museums and galleries, the lowest result of all the services, while the 7 per cent drop was the largest decline in satisfaction with any service.

The chairman of the Cultural Services Executive at the Local Government Association (LGA), Geoffrey Theobald, says central government is to blame: 'Budgets are going down while responsibilities are increasing and cultural services are the poor man of council funding.

While education is ring-fenced, museums and galleries haven't had the money spent on them that they should have and that is reflected in the figures.'

The LGA also points out that council tax has risen by 30 per cent since the last survey, leading people's expectations to rise, in spite of the fact that the bulk of the money has not gone to museums.

Brian Hayton, the head of museums at Hull City Museums and Art Gallery, says he is 'not sure about the direct relationship to council tax'. Rather, he says, the figures show a 'declining product and emaciated management capacity'. His department took a £52,000 budget cut this year, a figure that he says is not half as much as it could have been when compared with the £10m cuts that the council was required to make overall. While emphasising the need for continued investment in museums, he believes that investment should go not just towards collections and displays but also to management, 'to give them the motivation to look at the bigger picture'.

Ron Inglis, the service manager at Nottingham City Museums and Galleries, which has suffered £30,000 of cuts this year, agrees. Nottingham has closed its Museum of Costume and Textiles, and is currently 'restructuring' the department. Inglis is looking at ways in which he can tie services together, such as combined ticketing for parking and events, in order to create extra income. Money generated in this way, he says, will be money that his department will be able to use in the future. He adds that the BVPI results serve to remind museums and galleries that they are in a competitive environment, and where investment is not forthcoming, they need to think creatively.

None the less, it is clear that without capital investment coupled with a reasonable ongoing operating budget, no amount of creative thinking and management training will increase user satisfaction. Until recently that investment has not been made.
But as money trickles through from phase one of Renaissance in the Regions, this may be about to change. Alec Coles, the chairman of the Group for Large Local Authority Museums, thinks so: 'The survey was conducted too early for hub funding to have any meaningful impact, but I would expect to see improvement in the next one.'

Other sources of funding, such as the Heritage Lottery Fund and regional agencies, are also essential for the development of museums. Bristol is a case in point: there, satisfaction with museums was down from 61 per cent in 2001 to 32 per cent in this year's survey.

A spokeswoman for Bristol Culture and Recreation Services admitted that it could have done more but said it was still deeply disappointed with the figures.

She said the figures were gathered late last year and did not reflect the fact that Bristol had received funding for some major projects that are now underway. Scheduled to open in 2008, the Museum of Bristol has had £800,000 of lottery money so far, with the promise of £10m more, while the Egyptian gallery in the City Museum and Art Gallery is about to undergo refurbishment, and will reopen in 2006.

But Bristol's case also highlights one of the problems with the BVPI survey: the city council is now planning on carrying out further consultation to establish other ways of improving its service because the survey does not provide any deeper analysis to illustrate its figures.

Vanessa Trevelyan, the head of Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service, thinks the survey is unhelpful, saying: 'There is plenty of data, but no analysis, so it is hard to get anything out of it.'

Trevelyan knows better than most the problems facing local authority museums. She has been implementing 'efficiency savings' over several years, and now there are no more savings to be made. Her department was showing a £300,000 deficit last year and was faced with the prospect of having to close some of its 12 museums. But after an outcry from staff and the local community, the council agreed to review the museums service, resulting in a £350,000 increase in budget this year to cover the deficit and account for the future.

Norfolk is in the minority: across the country, local authorities have either cut or frozen budgets for cultural services this year. When asked about the BVPI survey findings, a spokeswoman for the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) talked about a 'long-term lack of investment' leading to the 'not unexpected' results.

But it is not all bad news. The MLA carried out its own survey last year, using museum visitors instead of general members of the public. The survey will not be published until early 2005, but initial results show that of 20,000 visitors asked at 43 different hub museums, 96 per cent expressed satisfaction with the service.

Another positive development was last month's announcement in the central government spending review that Renaissance in the Regions would be extended to all nine regions.

Although the exact levels of funding have not been given yet, it is hoped that not only will this provide much-needed capital investment but that some of the money will go towards detailed analysis of the relationship between museums and the public. It remains to be seen whether this will be enough to reverse the trend in time for the next round of visitor satisfaction surveys. mj

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