Letter to the Editor of The Times

From the Chairman of the National Museum Directors' Conference

21 October 2001

Simon Jenkins's call (article, 5 October 2001) for greater independence and stronger powers for the governing bodies of the national museums and galleries is welcome but out-right privatisation is surely not an option. These are, after all, national institutions established by Parliament to care for and provide public access to national assets. Their funding is the statutory responsibility of Government, vital to their well-being, however enterprising they may be. A positive relationship with Ministers and an appropriate degree of accountability are proper and necessary.

But the national museums are now big and complex businesses for which the traditional government controls are plainly unsuitable. What our boards need is a fully independent, and 'grown-up' direct relationship with Ministers. We need all the executive powers and responsibilities of a private sector corporate body necessary to manage the business properly with a strategic level of public accountability but without interference in policies and day-to-day management, whether direct or through intermediate agencies. Much of this is actually already in place but it will require some innovative thinking outside the box of 'Treasury rules' to provide what is missing.

It is important that the discussion is not driven by the difficulties of any particular institution but rather recognises that museums are generally already governed with considerable effectiveness and efficiency. What other public service routinely matches its operating grant with self-engendered income and raises almost all its capital funding from non-governmental sources?

The quality of the product and service we offer is outstanding. Our many recent new developments are envied and admired around the world. Levels of visitor satisfaction are extremely high. Our contributions to the economy, financial, cultural and educational are enormous and, contrary to reports, many of us continue to achieve notable increases in attendance. We can do better, for sure, but we are a success story that warrants support.

Nor, finally, will it be helpful, at this stage, to return to the divisive issue of charging. The sector has 'agreed to disagree' and, provided the bargain is kept, it is now more important that our institutions and their governing bodies are equipped with the powers and the political encouragement to get on with the job of managing the public services for which they are responsible as effectively and efficiently as possible.

Robert Crawford