Museum praised for its modern dinosaurs: The 'great appeal' of national history exhibits is singled out in a report on the value British cultural institutions give for their pounds 244m spending

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The Independent Online
THE DINOSAURS at the Natural History Museum received a boost from an unlikely quarter yesterday - the National Audit Office.

While others moan about the way in which our treasured institutions are being turned into theme parks, the NAO, in its value for money report into British national museums and galleries, singled out the Natural History's dinosaurs and 'creepy crawlies' displays for special praise.

Such 'up-to-date' exhibits, said the NAO, had 'greater appeal' and 'were particularly well-received' by visitors. Their popularity was borne out in other ways.

Out of the five museums and galleries which were examined in detail by the NAO (British, Natural History, Science, National Gallery and Portrait Gallery), the Natural History had the highest proportion of C1 and C2 social classes among its visitors and the best response to advertising and publicity.

Overall, the 11 national museums and galleries spent about pounds 244m last year, of which pounds 192m came from the Department of National Heritage. They attract 22 million people a year - about a quarter of all visitors to UK museums and galleries.

Heading the list are the British Museum with 5 million visitors and the National Gallery with 4.3 million. A long way behind in third place is the Tate with 1.8 million.

It was not a total clean bill of health from the NAO. The five were criticised for high food and drink prices, not doing enough to persuade more people to use their shops, short opening hours, poor siting of information desks and bad display of guide books, and not providing enough foreign language information for overseas visitors.

They could generate more money themselves. Seven out of 10 visitors did not use their catering facilities. Of those who did, only 18 per cent thought that the prices were fair, while a third thought they were high.

As for their shops, only 60 per cent of visitors went to them. Of that total, almost half did not spend anything. Customers were more likely to be from abroad or to be accompanied by children. Average purchases were also low, ranging from 92p at the Natural History to 56p at the National Portrait, when according to the NAO's own marketing consultant, pounds 1 was a reasonable target.

Both the Natural History and Science Museum set admission charges. Perhaps, significantly, they were the only ones to be praised for their promotional campaigns and market research. They also had the highest use of floor plans where visitors get them with their tickets. But in general, though, only one in eight visitors to museums and galleries picked up a programme of events and only one in 12 bought a guide book.

Of greatest concern to the institutions themselves is their old buildings. Officials at the Natural History and Science museums told the NAO that their refurbishment programmes were not keeping pace with the rate of decay of their galleries.

'They believed that the progressive ageing of their galleries represented the most serious shortcomings in terms of quality of service to visitors,' they said.

The NAO approved the borrowing of ideas from other organisations to try to improve their quality of service. Natural History staff have studied the approach of American museums to commerce and marketing and others have been on training courses at the Disney Corporation.

Critics who worry about the museums and galleries becoming theme parks, take note.