Museums in panic over mystery review

THERE is a theory that creating a belief that something exists - even when it doesn't - is enough to prompt the desired reaction. To justify this theory, look no further than Britain's museums, thrown into panic by the threat of a mysterious government-sponsored review.

The review, called the Giddens Report, wants museums to be funded on the basis of their contribution to the community rather than the importance of the treasures they hold.

The fact that no one has seen the Giddens Report has not calmed racing curatorial hearts. The suspicion is that the report is no more than the invention of the Government's academic advisers, with the aim of making museums examine their budgets, costings and funding, as Chris Smith, the Culture Secretary, draws up his cultural spending review for July.

According to one national director, the result has been "traditional panic and hysteria".

The Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), the Museums and Galleries Commission (MGC, the Government's official advisers), the Museums Association, the Association of Independent Museums, even No 10, all say they have no idea what the Giddens Report is. Its "existence" was revealed in the The Art Newspaper, in which it is credited to Tony Giddens, director of the London School of Economics.

The review is on the agenda at a meeting of the Association of National Museum Directors, which coincides with the start of Museums Week this Saturday.

Dr Giddens is a leading author on community sociology and an adviser to the Prime Minister, but he says: "I have not written anything about museums, nor am I going to, because it is an area I know nothing whatever about. I can only think that it might be another Giddens, though the only other one I know of is my brother and he lives in the United States."

There is a febrile atmosphere among museums, which get more than pounds 200m from the DCMS; they are uncertain as to the Government's intentions, particularly after a year of fudging on the issue of free admission.

"There is a worry that the Government wants to change the structure of national museums, and give us a charter like universities so that we can raise loans," said Sir Neil Cossons, director of the Science Museum. "The worry is that it might be seen as a way of reducing the government grant."

In fact, a policy framework being devised by the MGC, which goes out for consultation next month, will make recommendations not far removed from those ascribed to Giddens, but without any threat to funding.

"Some museums could have a greater sense of social purpose," said the MGC's deputy director, Val Bott. "We want certain standards and targets. Nothing will be imposed, but if people think there is a policy framework we can put flesh on, we might have something workable."

There is also uncertainty about the Government's view of museums. Sir Neil welcomed Tony Blair to his museum recently and was startled to find that the Prime Minister had never been before. "He is not a museum man," Sir Neil said. "The Government hasn't discovered what the past means to it yet. Museums have been far too coy about what we have to offer.

"We have been very preoccupied with admission charges, but the real debate is not about that. It's about what museums are for, how they are paid for and who pays, and at the centre is the taxpayer. It's about what we can offer tomorrow's taxpayer."