Leading Article: Museums leave much room for improvement

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THIS morning's National Audit Office report gives little hint of the revolution that has taken place in Britain's biggest galleries and museums. A decade ago, many of them were dowdy and badly run. Today, there are new galleries, and collections are better displayed. New systems help to control the crowding at popular exhibitions. Museum shops and restaurants have improved. Advertising has become more professional. New attention is being given to the needs of schoolchildren and the disabled.

Behind the scenes, there have been equally important changes in museum management. Directors now have control over the fabric of buildings, and may negotiate with the trade unions that represent their staff. Private sponsorship is now a routine part of their activities. Some institutions have courted controversy by charging for admission.

All these changes are mentioned by the NAO, but nowhere is there a clear assessment of which have been for the good and which not. The report makes much of the fact that those who visit this country's great public museums are largely happy with what they see. At the British Museum, the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum, 97 per cent or more of the visitors were either 'satisfied' or 'very satisfied'.

Yet there is still much to be done. Museum-going remains largely a middle-class pursuit; only one of the big institutions above found more than a sixth of its visitors from among the skilled and unskilled workers in the C2, D and E social groupings. Whether this is something that should worry their directors is a matter for discussion. So too is the great variation revealed in the museums' costs per visitor, and their varying success in generating their own income and running shops.

Visitors to most of them - 'customers', according to some directors, 'owners', according to others - are less happy with the food than the sights. Some museums have done little for those who do not speak English: the National Portrait Gallery, for instance, does not yet publish a guide to its collection in a single foreign language. Almost all are unsympathetic to the plight of budget travellers, who would like to leave their rucksacks somewhere while they walk around the galleries.

Residents of Britain will probably be most exercised by the question of opening hours. Of the five, the National Gallery's is the only door one can walk through after 6pm, and that on a mere nine Wednesdays each year. Other museums would like to open later, but say their staff unions demand an extortionate price for doing so. Yet for many people lucky enough to live nearby, evenings are the time they would most like to walk around a museum. Directors have no excuse for continued inaction on this.