HL Deb 22 March 1989 vol 505 cc765-810

8 p.m.

Lord Annan rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what information they have received from the trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum about the recent reorganisation of responsibilities in the museum and about the treatment of the curatorial staff who have been made redundant.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am asking the Government the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper because the recent events at the Victoria and Albert Museum are of concern to our national museums and galleries here and in Scotland.

The present imbroglio at the Victoria and Albert has its origins in a visit by the National Audit Office investigators. It is a singular irony that the staff poured out their hearts to them, spoke of their frustrations, the backlog of work undone, etc. Their reward was to be pilloried before the Public Accounts Committee and the director abused by those who picked on a woman when they received short change from the robust Yorkshireman, Sir David Wilson, who was defending the British Museum.

I have very considerable sympathy for Mrs. Esteve-Coll after some of the intemperate attacks that have been made upon her. I have sympathy for her because I believe that the deficiencies that she faces are due to the failure of the Government to face those responsibilities. Public interest in the arts has grown enormously. The staff at our museums have not grown to meet that interest. They are overwhelmed by demand and backlogs of work. Will the Minister confirm that the number of curatorial staff at the Victoria and Albert is exactly what it was 20 years ago, with the exception of one secretary and one word processor? Does the Minister share my alarm at hearing the director say that she intends to reduce that number?

However, there is a far more serious charge for the Government to face. The deputy chairman of the trustees, Sir Michael Butler, tells us that the finances of the Victoria and Albert have been cut each year for the past 13 years by 3 per cent. Now the Government are not honouring the pay awards to which they are a party. The OAL approves a pay award; but when the grant is fixed, it does not meet the terms on which increases of salaries and wages have been made. As a result, 83 per cent. of the V&A annual grant now goes on salaries and wages. At the British Museum I believe it is nearer 90 per cent. That means less and less money for those running the museum. By 1992, so I understand, the V&A will be in deficit unless it gets rid of staff. Is that one reason why eight curatorial staff have been asked to take voluntary retirement?

I call this policy dishonest and dishonourable. I can guess what the Minister will reply. She will say that the Government are spending millions on the roofs of the V&A, "The trustees have the remedy in their own hands. Let them raise money. Let them charge a realistic compulsory entry charge". So to raise money we have Sotheby's showing off their auction wares, and Elton John's bric-à-brac collection being exhibited. We have Burberrys using prime exhibition space to advertise, while Harrods display 13 paintings of the V&A to tout for sales of their reproduction Victorian furniture.

Would it not be more honest of the Government to hold a meeting of the trustees and directors of all the national museums and galleries and tell them that they expect them all to impose an entry charge of, whatever it might be, £3 or £5, according to the museum or gallery? The Government could work out with them ways of making the charge less onerous. There could be one free day a week. There could be a season ticket for friends of each of the institutions so that friends can drop in without charge, and so on.

May we have some leadership from the Ministers? After all, the Prime Minister is not short of that quality. Or will the Government continue, like the priest and the Levite, to pass by on the other side? Can the Government at any rate give leadership on one point? The continual pressure on museums to raise money by selling off their possessions is disgraceful. Is the Tate to sell a Van Gogh to mend its leaking roofs? The Minister for the Arts could do something to restore confidence by saying outright that he is not in favour of museums and galleries selling their acquisitions.

I must add that the provincial museums are particularly alarmed by the financial crisis at the V&A. They suffered a blow in 1978 when Sir Roy Strong axed the circulation service on grounds of economy. Now Mr. Graham Whiffen is reported as saying that the museum is considering asking other institutions to pay for receiving advice—institutions such as the provincial museums, the National Trust, the National Heritage Fund, the Museums and Galleries Commission and the reviewing committee. I think that would be nothing short of a scandal. These bodies are charities and the reviewing committee is a government agency. If they are to be charged, every institution will charge and the Government will pay a pretty penny. What about the public? Is it envisaged that the opinions that the V&A supply to those asking for advice will be calculated by the hour? Or will they be calculated pro rata per valuation?

Let me now turn to the dispute itself. I do not believe that the dispute at the V&A is simply a matter of a reforming director being opposed by recalcitrant staff or of a tyrannical director riding roughshod over experts. But I do believe that the change in policy that the director wishes to implement has not been handled all that well. For some time, so I understand, the relations between the management and the curatorial staff have been rather less good than they should be. To remedy such matters, Sir Roy Strong set up a committee of keepers and senior staff. They could agree on nothing.

Accordingly, the new director set up another committee in May of last year under Mr. Murdoch, the keeper of paintings and drawings. This committee was far more representative of the staff as a whole. It came up with five alternative plans. These schemes were discussed at a weekend conference held in the country. Great support was shown for the director and there was great willingness by most staff to implement reforms. There was no further consultation with staff. On 26th January the director put her plan for reform to the trustees.

That was a radical plan and would certainly have aroused opposition from some of the staff. It was not circulated to the trustees with other papers for the meeting. It was tabled at the meeting. One or two trustees protested that they must have time to study it. Some say they were given half an hour, others a quarter of an hour to do so. No one knows better than myself how difficult it is for any academic or artistic institution to obtain agreement on change, particularly radical change. The director may have reasoned that if she put the plan first to the staff, some of them would have lobbied trustees to oppose it or even started a press campaign to oppose it.

Whether or not the plan should first have been put to the staff of the V&A, surely the trustees should not have been asked to take a decision of such magnitude without time to consider likely reactions to the plan, and whether it needed in any way to be modified. Were the trustees told that the plan was likely to be criticised inside and outside the museum? The more drastic the reconstruction of course the more important it was for them to have ample time to consider it. Anyway, the trustees approved the plan. Eight days later eight senior curatorial staff were each told in a brief interview that they were being offered early retirement at once or they were liable to be made redundant.

I think there are two issues here. The trustees were not informed that senior staff, some of whom had served the museum for some 20 to 30 years, were to be sacked. The only reference to the future of the staff in the memorandum that was tabled ran as follows: The implications of the foregoing for individuals will be discussed with each member of the curatorial staff so that they can be placed successfully in the new developing structure or otherwise accommodated". It may be that in industry the words "otherwise accommodated" would make it crystal clear to directors that staff were to be sacked. But such periphrastic language should not be used to a board of trustees, some of whom expect to be addressed in plain English.

The day after the meeting of the trustees, the director held a staff meeting. I have the text of the director's speech here. Staff say they were led to understand that no redundancies were imminent. Should staff of such seniority have been treated in that way? It will be said that they obtained more generous terms than if they had been made redundant. The terms were not generous, however. The staff received what was legally owing to them. The money was not obtained by a special indulgence on the part of the Treasury. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that the Treasury exercised its right of virement and obtained unspent sums that were earmarked for the repair of the V&A building. Those sums were transferred in order to meet the staffs early retirement payments; in other words money badly needed to repair the crumbling fabric of the building was diverted for this purpose. What is more, the cost of the redundancies is far more than £300,000. I understand it may amount to as much as £1.75 million when all the staff have retired.

It may be said in defence of this action that many of the staff in different ways were obstructive or quirky. Keepers very often are quirky. One whose work was beyond reproach had the reputation within the museum of opposing any change of any kind as a matter of principle. Another was renowned for retreating into his lair to write a book. There are many ways of dealing with difficult staff—establishing good personal relations is one. However, if that is impossible, as it sometimes is in museums, the redeployment of duties is another way.

The headship of departments can, and perhaps should, revolve. As Mr. Macmillan used to say when reshuffling his Cabinet, "We all of us have to spend some time in the pavilion". If Mr. Lightbown, Mr. Mallet or Miss Levey had been invited to exchange duties with other members of the staff, they may have accepted. Why lose their expertise? It has never been alleged that any of the eight people involved were poor scholars. Will the Minister tell us whether the eight were sacked to allay the fears that they would not co-operate? Why not first see whether they would? They may well have co-operated if the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, had used his great persuasive powers.

I think there is a question of principle here. In business, so we are told, high executives are called in at 10.30 in the morning and told they must leave the building by 12.30. Such executives are of course paid very large salaries. The larger one's salary, the larger is one's golden handshake and the more ignominious one's exit. But curators are not paid large salaries. They belong to the learned professions and they are paid even less than dons. That is all the more reason to treat them decently.

Hundreds of dons have had to take early retirement in recent years. But they were given time to adjust, to appeal and to work out their entitlements. Hardly a story has emerged from the universities of vulgar and brutal treatment. Many people consider that the staff of the Victoria and Albert were treated, in this respect, vulgarly and brutally.

There are some matters concerning the trustees that I must raise with the Minister. Does she agee that when a major change of this kind is made to improve efficiency new posts should be advertised? Why was it then that, despite a promise made to the trustees that that would be the case, the major post of administrative assistant director was not advertised but Mr. Close was appointed from within the museum? It may well be that he would in the end have been appointed as the person best fitted for the job. I do not dispute that, but why not test the field?

The trustees agreed to spend £250,000 on an advertising campaign to attract visitors. Whether that was wise when a major reconstruction was envisaged—we know that such reconstructions always cost money—is another matter. But, whatever the cost, was it right that the contract should have gone to Saatchi and Saatchi when Mr. Maurice Saatchi is a trustee of the gallery? I must say at once that I am in no way making a personal attack on Mr. Saatchi. Everyone knows what fine patrons of the arts he and his brother are and how public spirited they are in opening to the public their gallery in West Hampstead. Incidentally, it is one of the best designed galleries in London. It is a real gem. But trustees give their services free. Those services are very valuable. Trustees do not become trustees for profit. I dare say that the profit here was nil or negligible and that all that Mr. Saatchi wanted was the prestige that his firm would enjoy by being associated with trying to raise the prestige of the V&A. However I must ask the Minister whether her right honourable friend will inform the chairmen of all boards of trustees that none of their colleagues should benefit financially from their position.

I shall leave it to others to enlarge on the wisdom or otherwise of the director's plan of reform. I do not wish to be dogmatic about the management structure of a museum of which I have no personal knowledge. I do not think curators are infallible judges of every aspect of their work. However, no praise could be too high for the connoisseurship of the curators at the National Gallery. But the trustees there did not think that some of those curators were good judges when it came to redecorating the rooms in which they displayed their masterpieces. In the end the trustees had to rule that no scheme of redecoration could go ahead without their approval. However, the trustees did not consider degrading the curators. There are surely a number of ways of skinning a cat.

The present difficulties which the V&A faces today seem to have arisen from bad management rather than bad curators. The near miss recently on the Gloucester candlestick occurred because there was no curator present. Is it true, as is alleged, that for eight years in the late 1970s virtually no maintenance work was carried out? Sir Michael Butler tries to persuade us that curators must have the predominant say, as he calls it, about which objects should be displayed in each gallery and in each case, and that they should have the predominant say in the labelling, and should continue to be responsible for recommendations on acquisitions. He says they should continue to be responsible for disposals, for the choice of objects for exhibition, for advice on loans, for export licences and other matters. That is of course their range of responsibilities at the present time.

I am astonished that it is proposed that if that is the case we can make do with fewer curators. Surely what is needed is what Professor Michael Jaffe, the director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, has been urging for years; namely, the establishment of a training course in management for curators of national and of provincial museums.

I am not asking the Government to request the trustees to reconsider the matter. What is done is done, as Lady Macbeth said, although I sincerely hope the director's nights will not be as disturbed as those of that misguided lady. Running a museum is more a matter of man-management than financial management. So let me end on a lighter note. Anyone who knows Greece will remember that in that land of gestures there are two in particular which are often employed. There is "poko" which is used when discussing politics, and there is "stroko" which is used when discussing love or money. I think a great deal more "stroko" needs to be used in the forthcoming months at the museum. Stroking one's subordinates is sometimes as necessary in restoring morale as exhortation.

I have another remedy. The Brigade of Guards is famous for its discipline. It is also famous for the way in which it looks after its men and trains its officers in man-management. I rather doubt whether those who run museums and galleries would be accepted for attachment to a battalion of the Guards, but perhaps the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, and those former guardsmen he used to select to second the loyal Address could be induced to tell the director and administrative staff of the V&A some of the secrets of getting the best out of those who work under them.

8.20 p.m.

Lord Carrington

My Lords, your Lordships are lucky because we have speaking in this debate the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, who will be able to answer some of the questions which have been raised.

I agreed with much of what the noble Lord, Lord Annan, said at the beginning of his speech. I intervene in the debate only briefly because I was for five years the chairman of the Trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Indeed, I was the first chairman of the trustees because until 1984 the museum was administered directly by the Government. It was a great privilege to serve that museum. It is one of the world's great museums, and I dare to say that of its kind it is the greatest. I enjoyed myself and I enjoyed the privilege of knowing those who worked in the museum. I think that I had a happy relationship with them. I had, and have, a respect and admiration for the work they do in extremely difficult circumstances.

When I arrived at the museum I discovered, first, that successive governments—and here I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Annan—had shamefully underfunded the museums and this museum in particular. In regard to capital expenditure the situation was no less than a disgrace. The roof leaked, the central heating radiators burst, the drainage did not work. I remember that a couple of years after I went there we worked out that it would take £30 million to put the fabric of the museum right. You cannot attract private sponsorship for that kind of work.

The noble Lord, Lord Annan, asked why £300,000 was under spent and not used on the fabric of the museum. He can have had little to do with the PSA if he does not know the reason for that.

The Government must be responsible for the fabric of museums. There is no way in which one can attract private sponsorship for the Arthur Robinson drainage system or the John Smith central heating boiler. That is the Government's job. I think that the present Minister for the Arts has done everything that he can in rather difficult circumstances to try to provide more capital expenditure for the museums.

Secondly I discovered that that underfunding extended to the running costs of the museum. No doubt my noble friend behind me will bear me out, although perhaps in a different context, that there was a favourite Treasury device. It was to tell the museums to settle their budgets on the basis of 2 per cent. inflation, then to settle civil service salaries and wages at 5 per cent. or 6 per cent. and, because the museums were tied to government rates, to expect the museums to absorb the difference. In the museums where, as the noble Lord said, 80 per cent. of the costs relate to people, that meant that it was a nightmare trying to make both ends meet. Sometimes one even had to worry about pen and paper.

All that made administration very difficult. Curators and the then director himself had and have an increasingly heavy and varied load. They had to master a host of other activities remote from the sort of work that curators had to do in the old days when their work was connected primarily with scholarship. They had to do so often with no help at all. They had to write their letters in longhand because there were no secretaries, and they were and are hopelessly overworked.

Let us face it, that does not lead to efficient administration. There was, and is, considerable criticism of the administration in the great national museums, and not least in the V&A. I think that some of it was wholly justified. There was criticism about the lack of inventories, the delay in cataloging and the backlog of conservation. All that was absolutely fair. However, a very great deal of that inefficiency was due to a lack of money, but not all of it.

It had something to do with the way in which the museum was organised and the enormous workload which was placed on the curators as a result. Towards the end of my time at the museum I came to the conclusion that a radical reorganisation was necessary. I believe that the director was absolutely right to rearrange the responsibilities and the chart of administration in the museum. I do not believe that that reflects upon the individuals concerned because I do not believe that it was their fault. However, the unhappy fact remains that reorganisations of that kind mean redundancies. I know that nobody is more sorry than the trustees and the director that that should be so.

I should like to make one last point. I know that the director is determined that the scholarship upon which the reputation of the Victoria and Albert Museum to a great extent depends should be maintained. I know too that she will monitor carefully the progress and consequences of her reorganisation. When we appointed Mrs. Esteve-Coll as director we thought unanimously, and speaking for myself I still do, that she was the outstanding candidate—capable, experienced and sensible. I think that those who worked in the Victoria and Albert Museum will know what a remarkable job she did in reshaping the National Art Library in that museum.

I am greatly dismayed, and frankly sickened, by the personal abuse and attacks to which she has been subjected, not least by one of her expatriate predecessors who has never met her and who wrote a letter with what can only be described as a pen dipped in vinegar. I cannot say, and nobody can say with certainty, that the proposals that the director and trustees have put forward are right. Equally, nobody can say with certainty that they are wrong. What I can say with certainty is that those who indulge in that kind of ad hominem argument rather than addressing the issues do themselves and their cause no good.

8.30 p.m.

Lord Hutchinson of Lullington

My Lords, it is an honour to follow the noble Lord, Lord Carrington. I know that we are all very pleased to see him back here participating in debates.

The noble Lord, Lord Annan, is entirely justified in bringing this matter to the attention of the House. He is uniquely equipped to do so with his outstanding academic career, not only as a scholar, but as an experienced administrator, and with his distinguished work as chairman of the National Gallery. After all, as the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, said, we are debating the situation of the greatest museum of decorative and fine art and design in the world. The V&A is part of the nation's patrimony and, along with other national museums, reflects, as the Museums and Galleries Commission put it: the nation's place in the history of civilisation". The commission also said in its recent report that a museum's success must rest on more than popularity. In other words, it reasserts the key importance of scholarship as a priority. It is a view which was echoed the other day in The Times by the noble Lord, Lord Goodman, who wrote: Destroy the fruits of years of scholarship and there is nothing left to popularise". There are two matters to address here. As the noble Lord, Lord Annan, asked: are the director's proposals worthy of support, and was the manner of their introduction appropriate? In my view, the second question can be answered only with a resounding and unequivocal no. The crisis at the V&A reflects so much of what is wrong with government policy towards the arts, as the noble Lord pointed out. First, there is the financial situation and the financial crisis which lies behind the problem that has arisen. Eighty-three per cent. of the grant provided to that museum is now absorbed in wages and salaries. In 1991–92, 100 per cent. of the grant will be thus absorbed: what a way to finance one of the greatest museums of the world!

The museum is an institution which is beginning to leak and disintegrate and which cries out for the Government's attention. The Government are prepared to produce £100 million to acquire a hugely publicised collection of paintings from a German millionaire, yet they cannot even find the amount of money needed—as the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, pointed out—to save one of the greatest museums in the world. There is glory, glamour and status in Thyssen; there is no less than the preservation of our heritage at the V&A.

Secondly, there is the issue of the appointment of trustees. In 1984 we debated the changeover of the V&A to trustee status. The noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, and I held different views in that debate about the role of the trustees. Since then, on a number of occasions in this House I have referred to the dangers of the Government's policy of appointing to great museums only trustees who are prepared to further the Thatcher philosophy—business men and women with an ability to make and raise money, who are willing to make museums part of the leisure industry of the country, to give priority to marketing, generation of income and the pursuit of the wealthy and to further the glitter of sponsorship and the ritzy presentation of the contents. All that is irrespective of whether those persons hold any qualifications whatever for tending, protecting and nurturing what has made our museums the envy of the world.

In that situation, did the trustees of the V&A—the great majority of whom are in business—familiarise themselves with the drastic structural reforms? Did they understand them? Did they digest them? Did they inquire about the cost of them? Did they measure the effect upon the staff, for whom, after all, they are responsible? Were they satisfied that the plans had been properly discussed with the staff? Did they know what had been the role of the Office of Arts and Libraries, Mr. Luce and Mr. Richard Wilding in the formulation of the reforms before they were presented to the trustees? Had any of them visited other institutions and talked to respected scholars and administrators in other great museums?

To be a trustee of a great museum it is not sufficient to attend seven or eight meetings a year and accept the honour of the post. Did the chairman—I am so glad that he is here to take part in the debate—point out to his colleagues the inevitable protests that would be received when it was found what those radical reforms involved? Those scholars, who have a worldwide reputation, were treated as a tycoon might treat redundant staff in a takeover bid.

We know certain facts. The noble Lord, Lord Annan, has pointed out that on that fatal 26th January those proposals were tabled and were on the table when the trustees came to sit down round it. The proposals would revolutionise that great museum and alter the whole basis upon which its reputation had been built up over the years. Anyone who has ever attended a committee meeting knows what the word "tabled" means. As the noble Lord said, two or three trustees protested and were granted a quarter of an hour to read the paper before the meeting proceeded with the business. In all seriousness, is that any way to deal with a matter of such huge importance?

In that paper, of which we all have a copy, there is not one single word about possible redundancies. Were the weasel words that were read out from paragraph 33 by the noble Lord a frank message to the trustees of what was afoot? In an interview given by the director to The Times three days later, there was not one word about any redundancies.

Within two weeks, the human heart of that museum had been torn out. Eight or nine men and women—scholars of incomparable knowledge, experience and repute—had gone from the museum. Their jobs had become redundant. Paragraph 5 of the director's apologia, a copy of which we all no doubt received last night in readiness for this debate and which I have in my hand, asks: Why was it necessary to make several senior curators redundant? No-one was made redundant. Certain individuals whose jobs disappear under the re-organisation were offered voluntary redundancy". The document refers to "certain individuals". As I have said, the jobs of international scholars with an average period of 20 years' service in that museum disappeared. As we all know, they had 14 days in which to consider the ending of their careers. Were they to take the redundancy money offered to them? They were told that £300,000 was there but on 31st January it would no longer be there: "Your decision must be made in the next 14 days". There were no compulsory redundancies; no redundancies were made. Is that a frank account of what really happened when they together told the press that they left under protest?

That is the situation. Certain questions arise. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, will enlighten us when he comes to speak. Why were there nine redundancies? Was it because 10 would have meant certain compulsory procedures applying in the museum under the trade union rules? Where did the £300,000 come from? Was it underspend on OAL or at the V&A—money which was vitally necessary for repairs? How much has this operation cost? Is the figure that the noble Lord gave of £1.75 million the amount which the taxpayer has to pay? I am sure that the Minister will inform us accurately.

We were told by the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, in our recent debate on the preservation of the heritage (at col. 1428 on 20th December in the Official Report): We are entering a new phase of entrepreneurial museum management", and he spoke of, vigorous marketing in order to make … collections accessible to the public". How true. We have already been told of Mr. Saatchi's efforts with the advertising campaign for the V&A as, an ace cafe with a museum attached". Sir Terence Conran, a trustee, refurbished the cafe and has marketed, through his firm, reprints of the textiles held by the museum. We have heard of the Sotheby's exhibition of Elton John's possessions with a very profitable auction afterwards. The Sock Shop has recently had a most profitable exposure at the museum and so has Burberrys. Is this treatment of distinguished staff and these commercial activities examples of the new government policy?

Finally let me turn to the proposals. How best to organise the running of a great museum must normally be left to those who know about it. However, control of collections is to be vested in managers answerable to a registrar. Departments will merge. Ceramics will be absorbed with metalwork and sculpture and the keeper, the renowned John Mallet and his No. 2, have been swept away, and ceramics will become part of a mixed department. This looks to me as though scholars are now to become generalists. Curators will have lost their power base and will be outnumbered by the administration staff.

Curators at the V&A are not academics in the university sense. They are not wedded to the study of books and treaties in libraries. It is the development of connoisseurship—a term of art in this profession—to which they devote their working lives. It is the constant dialogue with objects—the handling, care, treatment and display of them—which enables the scholar to learn the genuine from the fake, to date and to authenticate. If managers are henceforth to be responsible for presentation, handling, storing, conserving, moving, lending and labelling, not one of those duties can be properly done without the expert advice of a curator. I wonder whether this director—three years at the museum, with a library background—fully understands the role of a curator and the apparent duplication involved in the separation of what is called housekeeping from scholarship.

Does it concern the chairman that museums from all over the world have expressed the view that the separation will destroy the reputation of the V&A? When I read the protest from Professor Gombrich, probably the most distinguished art historian alive, that, curators have earned no thanks for their patient labour in the search of truth", and, do the new brooms know the damage they are preparing for the future?", I ask myself whether the director is right.

Surely the reforms in the museum should have embraced and built on the assets that are already there. I hope that the doubts that I express will be resolved when we hear the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong.

8.45 p.m.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, the Question has been raised with eloquence and learning by the noble Lord, Lord Annan, and answered in a way which to me was unexpected by the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, as an ex-chairman of the directors. It was raised again with fire and leas lung by my noble friend Lord Hutchinson. I shall not therefore go again over the matter of the sacked keepers. I use short and familiar words. But I shall concentrate on wider aspects and on one particular narrow one.

If one were Mrs. Thatcher it would have been a very good idea to start with the museums, as she did, with the National Heritage Act 1983. If one were determined to take a symbolic action to indicate to people the primacy in the view of the Government of profit and commerce over learning and education one could not have found a better way to do it. She therefore wrote the Act which was debated here. We did not succeed in improving it very much. It was put through against the background of continually falling government grants to museums. Its purpose was already quite clear. It was to enable—indeed to force—museums to seek private funding. It also gave the Prime Minister personally the power to appoint the boards of directors of certain museums including the Victoria and Albert. I know that one can chop the figures into three classes of persons, but she did this in a way which reinforced her original decision. It was clear that all those businessmen on the board were there to teach the former effete academics and connoisseurs how to make a healthy thing called money. The result has been as we have been told today.

I have one more point about the "ace caff". Of course Mr. Saatchi's slogan "ace caff with museum attached" is destined for immortality. It stands for so much that is done by the Government and will be done in the future no doubt. I note from Sir Michael Butler's article in The Times that there is to be created a new post under the new regime called assistant director (collections). I cannot think what it can mean but that the director's prime responsibility will be the caff, and the collections and their maintenance and study are moved one down and away from the director's desk on to that of an assistant director.

Before I knew this Question was being put down, I had put some Questions down for Written Answers. They were not due to be answered by today, but the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, with her customary courtesy, and even prestidigitation, has reached out her hand from her office in the Ministry of Agriculture, and I received the Answers from the Minister for the Arts this afternoon. She has performed a miracle. They are instructive. With the permission of the House, I shall read some of them. I asked: On what terms Sock Shop and Burberrys have been allowed to exhibit and advertise their goods in the galleries of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and on what terms national treasures in the care of that museum have been transferred as a sales adjunct to the custody of Harrods. The Answer was: This is a matter for the director and trustees of the museum. I will ask the director to write to the noble Lord". This is a matter that the House will wish to get to the bottom of.

As I do not often go to Harrods, and had not been to the V&A, I was alerted to this by an article in the Herald Tribune, an American newspaper. The article was written by an art history correspondent who was amazed to find that the Burberry coat that he was wearing when he visited the V&A was the same as one in a glass case with a nice advertisement for Burberrys. A Guardian columnist a few weeks later recounted how she had bought a pair of tights at a Sock Shop in Farringdon Road and went to the V&A to write the intended piece about it and found the tights in a case with a nice advertisement for Sock Shop. This is a startling departure about which we should collect all the information we can.

My second Question was to ask: What guarantees Harrods have given of the care they will take of (a) the Waterloo Vase, (b) the Duke of Wellington's Berlin Service and (c) pictures, including at least one by John Crome, all from the Victoria and Albert Museum, while they are in Harrods' Knightsbridge shop". The Answer was: This is a matter for the director and trustees of the museum. I will ask the director to write to the noble Lord". Thirdly, I asked: Whether the present commercial use of gallery space at the Victoria and Albert Museum and of objects in its care outside the museum had been discussed with the expert curators who have recently been required to take early retirement". Here we are a little nearer to the crux of the matter. The answer was: This is a matter for the director and trustees of the museum. I will ask the director to write to the noble Lord". My fourth Question was luckier. I asked: Whether all objects in the care of the Victoria and Albert Museum are at present on show in its galleries". My reason for doing that was fairly obvious. Here the Government were voluble in their explanations: As with all national collections, it is not possible for the Victoria and Albert Museum to display all the objects in the collections at the same time. Objects in reserve collections are made available regularly to scholars and members of the public on request". The next Question was to ask: Whether the … trustees and/or director of the Victoria and Albert Museum have any authority to dispose of objects in the care of the museum". The answer is of course that they have, and that authority was given by the Act of 1983.

The Answer referred to limited powers, but I cannot see any way in which those powers could impose any limitation on a museum selling anything. It depends who are the trustees to declare what kind of object it is.

Lastly, I asked from what accounts the money was being taken to secure the early retirement of the expert curators. Here I was given a voluble answer—too voluble to read to the House. And interesting indeed it was. The Government clearly regard that as their own responsibility. The Government permitted that money to be taken from the building account, perhaps because of a shortfall in expenditure. But as the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, said, who does not expect shortfalls in expenditure in a given year on building accounts from the PSA? Money was taken from that building account and used to buy out the curators. I think that is the correct expression. They had to accept that kind of money in comparison with the salaries that they were getting and could expect later.

Lastly, on the curators, Sir Michael Butler's article assured the reader that the curators under the new regime would be allowed to take objects into their own offices to compare with other objects. I believe that gives what must be the tone of the board of trustees better than any other quote I have read. Curators will be allowed the great privilege of taking items out of cases to look at them, as they always have, in privacy if their work requires it. That at least is guaranteed.

I submit that the overall picture is that the Government are determined to commercialise the museums. In order to commercialise the Victoria and Albert, which they chose to do first, they found it necessary to get rid of the world famous corps of keepers who were there who either did object to or would have objected to it. I was given no answer to that question. I look forward to receiving one from the director of the museum. It was found necessary to get rid of those people. The power to sell is there. I have little doubt that it will be used and used increasingly because I see no sign whatever of the Government being prepared to take up once again the ancient and honourable role, first of the kings and then of democratically-elected governments, of maintaining collections of artefacts for the education of and study by the people, and as a means of encouraging young artisans, artificers and artists, to enter into the minds and hands of those in the past who made those artefacts. That is what it is for, and it is clear to me that that purpose is being and has been and will be abandoned by the present Government.

Nevertheless, the point of the whole debate today is to listen to what account the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, gives us. I am glad of, and compliment him on, his choice of being last in the debate so that he can answer as many points as possible. We shall have much to learn from that.

8.56 p.m.

Viscount Eccles

My Lords, so far in the debate there has been much talk about under-funding. I agree entirely with that. I know from experience that without more money, one cannot establish the facilities needed for a growing public, but that is not what I want to speak about tonight. There is another aspect to the difficulties in the Victoria and Albert. When our national museums were founded 100 or more years ago, for whom and by whom were they to be managed? The British Museum established the pattern. The trustees instructed their first director not to admit more than six members of the public on any one day. They engaged scholarly curators to build and look after the collections for the benefit of a small circle of connoisseurs.

That system produced splendid results. Naturally enough as time passed it attracted a wider and wider public. Then the trustees had to begin to think about providing facilities very different from those needed for research. The conflict between research and administration took shape and we still have it today.

All my life I have found curators—many of them my very good friends—frank and honest about their disdain for the general public. There is no reason to be surprised or indignant about that attitude. Visitors can be an awful nuisance. They waste the time of professional staff, ask silly questions, crowd the galleries to a point where the serious student cannot examine the objects as he should.

When I was considering the introduction of museum charges I asked the late Lord Clark whether he would give me his support. He said, "Yes, I will, but on one condition: you must charge children double". He was perfectly serious. He had often been maddened by boys playing cops and robbers round the exhibition cases. He said that he had once tripped over a little girl lying on her stomach drawing a perfectly hideous picture of an Egyptian mummy.

There exists a real problem: how to reconcile with the rising tide of visitors the days without interruption which are needed by the scholars. That will never be easy to achieve, especially when there is insufficient funding to strike a generous balance between those two conflicting objectives.

It is just luck—it is a bonus one cannot count on—if a good scholar is also a good administrator. Even the best curators cannot do everything. When in addition to the care and knowledge of their collections other duties become a public concern—such as catering for the unsophisticated constituents of Members of Parliament, teaching art in the schools, the importance of tourism—unless enough attention is paid within the museum to good housekeeping and to the new external services, trouble is bound to arise.

Could the trouble at the Victoria and Albert Museum have been anticipated and dealt with without what appears to be a dictatorial break with the past which has led to sharp criticism from my noble friend Lord Annan and other important people in the world of the arts? I believe that it could and I ought to try to explain to your Lordships how it might have been achieved.

As the noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson, has said, in November 1982 your Lordships debated the Heritage Bill. My noble friends Lord Perth and Lord Gibson—I am glad that they are to speak, because they do so with great experience of museums—joined with me in proposing an amendment which would have brought the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum and some of his senior colleagues round the board table with the nominated trustees. There they would have discussed together such managerial changes as are being made today. Our amendment failed and it is important to stress why it did so. Too many of your Lordships were content with the old-fashioned structure where a hard and fast line is drawn between the responsibilities of the director to manage and the responsibilities of the trustees to observe and advise.

Mandarins in the art world, such as Lord Clark and Sir John Pope-Hennessy, always held that the trustees should know what the director is doing only after he has done it. There have been six uneasy years since the Bill became law. But, had the amendment been accepted and had there been on the statute book a system for constant discussions between senior executive officers and the trustees, I can hardly believe that the changes now faced in the museum would have arisen in what has sometimes been considered to be a sharp way.

I turn to deal with changes in the staff. I do not have the pleasure of knowing Mrs. Esteve-Coll. I know of her reputation, which is excellent, and, in principle, I entirely support the changes she is making. Many museums have already made imaginative adjustments to the changing priorities in our society. They realise that the way in which they conserve, display and explain their collections counts for much in the degree of esteem in which our national culture is held.

When we talk about "national" culture, what do we mean? I do not believe that we all mean the same thing. In this country we have always been good at agriculture and horticulture but we have not made much of culture without qualification. I grew up believing that culture was slightly foreign, not really English, and that it was attainable by only a limited, superior minority of which I hoped one day to be a member. But, after some experience in the maintained schools, after the friendship of a number of artists and two or three years as Minister for the Arts, I came to the conclusion that in order to deserve the epithet "national", culture must not only start at the top and filter down but must spread outwards and upwards from the bottom. If one looks at young people in the streets today and at their clothes one can see that our culture is spreading from the bottom.

I thought that the health of the national culture could be measured by how far the barriers which kept art a luxury were being removed. To obtain the best from our museums, many more ladders of experience were needed which were open to anyone to climb as far as his or her capabilities would allow. Obviously the Victoria and Albert Museum has a huge potential for erecting such ladders of experience for anyone who can be persuaded to take an interest in design and decoration.

Was not that the original objective of the Prince Consort? I believe that it was, but the museum had become much more intellectual than His Royal Highness would have approved of. Provided that the resources are adequate—and I am ready to admit that they are not—the Prince's objective can be achieved today not at the expense of research but essentially in co-operation with it.

As I see it, that is what my noble friend Lord Armstrong of Ilminster and Mrs. Esteve-Coll want to do. And they cannot do it unless they redeploy the staff in order to get a better balance between research and good housekeeping. They are going to extend the base of British culture and at the same time the work of the experts will be protected. It is absurd to say that the work of the experts is being destroyed. On the contrary, they are now going to have much more time to themselves, and they can write their books. I remember very well at the British Museum a very distinguished man coming to ask: "Can I write a life of Proust?" I asked him, "How much time will it take?" and he said, "Well, nearly all my time." I thought he would do it very well and so I told him to get on with it.

You could not say that in the Victoria and Albert as it is now. You will be able to after this reorganisation. I think your Lordships should really support the trustees: they are moving into the world in which we live and the director has obviously got some good ideas. I personally wish them the very best of success.

9.10 p.m.

Lord Gibson

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Annan, reminded us in his admirable speech how this row began. I think it is also important to remember the background against which it has developed: a background which has been there for several years. The background is that throughout the world of academic scholarship there is a general apprehension that a utilitarian view of the value of places of learning is gaining ground in society generally, and in government in particular ——

Viscount Eccles

My Lords, I do not think it is.

Lord Gibson

My Lords, it is widely felt among scholars both within and without universities that studies which do not lead to visible material progress are not as respected as once they were and no longer receive the priority that once they did. Whether these fears are justified or not is not a subject for debate tonight. Their relevance this evening is simply that they exist and in the V&A they are largely the consequence of inadequate public funding in recent years for the basic purposes of the museum. This shortfall and its consequences have been emphasised by the Museums and Galleries Commission in its report on our national museums.

While it is acceptable that trustees of a museum should be encouraged to look to the private sector for some desirable expansion and development, it is quite wrong—this has been said already this evening and it cannot be over-emphasised—that they should be expected to find funds for basic activities: that is to say, for preserving the fabric of the building, for displaying, securing, conserving and, where appropriate, adding to the collections in their care as well as using them for education and scholarship. It is the inadequate funding which has led scholars and curators to fear that just as pure research in universities is being, as they see it, downgraded, so the basic purposes of the museum may be betrayed because of the need for it to gear itself to purposes for which funds can more easily be found from the private sector.

The new chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, and the new director, Mrs. Esteve-Coll, undoubtedly found the museum in a serious plight, as both the MGC's report and the deep concern of the Public Accounts Committee testify. They deserve our sympathy in their determination to tackle the problems, but we are entitled to ask questions about their chosen solution. It is not easy for outsiders to judge whether the proposed structure is right or wrong. But we are permitted to wonder whether the abolition of the status of the scholar-curator—a breed which has made the museum so internationally admired—is really the only way to set about reform and whether modification, rather than root and branch change, might not have secured the objective; and, above all, whether change in less haste—change over a year or two—might not have secured better treatment for those most affected by it. If the haste was dictated by the methods of the Treasury, and it seems to have been, then it will not be the first time that our system of public accounting control has proved expensive in all but the shortest terms.

What has happened at the V&A of course is that the enormous increase in public interest in the museum and the demands upon it have far outstripped any increases in public funding. Consequently there has been a downward pressure on staff numbers in relation to the volume of work required of them, and staff have had to spend extra time—much more than before—on tasks of management, evidently with not great success at all times.

It is right that management, marketing and so on should be improved, and that the trustees should have a duty to promote public understanding and enjoyment. But, as the MGC says, Museums must rest on more than popularity", and, as it adds by implication, it is the duty of government to ensure that they do, or to provide at least the wherewithal to ensure that they do. Popularity must not be at the expense of connoisseurship, scholarship and research, which, in view of present public interest in and demands on the museum, needs all the more to be expressed as a primary purpose of the museum. It has been argued that the changes in structure recently adopted by the trustees are calculated to achieve precisely that objective. By relieving curators of administrative tasks it is said that they will be released to find more time for connoisseurship and scholarship.

However, what has caused so many doubts to be raised by the proposed changes, quite apart from the premature loss—if that is not a weasel way of describing it—of so many distinguished people is the statement in the director's paper that there must be a clear-cut separation between scholarship and housekeeping. The paper goes on to define housekeeping as receiving, documenting, moving, storing and conserving. This has been interpreted by many to mean that unqualified people will be handling the objects for which the expert scholars will no longer be responsible. I do not believe for a moment that that is the case and that they will be unqualified to receive or document. That cannot be the intention. There has been a very great deal of ill-informed comment about this and some disgraceful personal attacks on the director. What is seriously at issue is where responsibility shall lie, and that issue is really worth discussing.

Nearly 20 years ago in a very different world from today I was chairman of the Victoria and Albert's advisory council. This gives me no qualification whatever to talk in detail about the organisation of the museum and of the staff. Our status as a council was not comparable with that of the disestablished body of trustees that exists today. Nevertheless reflecting on the V&A as I knew it then, I ask myself certain questions. Can it be right to divorce the experts from responsibility for the objects that they understand so much better than anyone else? Who will be responsible for a decision to loan an object or to move it—not who will advise on such points but who will actually be responsible for the decision? I think that it probably ought to be the person who best understands the object, and is that not the scholar curator?

In a sense the proposals separating the expertise and the administration have a very familiar ring to someone who has spent most of his life in business. The practice of having experts on tap but not on top is a good old business principle. But a museum that is largely devoted not to design but to the fine as well as the decorative arts is not a business and it seems to me must be scholar-based or connoisseur-based, whatever the administrative system devised to support the scholar curators. However, it is not for in experts like me to prescribe a form of organisation for a great museum.

I have only one point that I want to urge. Given the present situation, confidence will best be restored by the nature and quality of the senior appointments that have yet to be made. If the new post of assistant director (collections), is filled by a man or woman of the highest academic reputation who is also a good administrator, a good leader and motivator of people and a powerful enough personality to ensure that the number of curators responsible to him or her is really sufficient for the basic purposes of the museum, as the GMC describe them, if such a person can be found, then those critics who fear for the future may be confounded. Likewise the two new posts below that of assistant director (collections)—the head of research and the registrar of collections —must be filled by people who totally command the respect of the scholars within and without the museum. Moreover, if there is movement of staff between housekeeping and research that too will help.

We have been assured by one trustee in a letter to the press that the draft job descriptions for these posts provide convincing assurance that the conditions for scholarship will substantially be improved by the new arrangements. Unfortunately it is not just conditions for scholarship about which people are worried. They are also worried that scholar curators may lose their pre-eminent responsibility for making decisions about the objects in the care of the museum. It must be up to the new assistant director (collections) to see not only that the housekeeping is greatly improved but that the museum values which the best keepers have so brilliantly upheld for many years continue to excite the admiration of the civilised world.

9.20 p.m.

Lord Blake

My Lords, I shall be extremely brief, as is appropriate at this stage of the evening. I cannot pretend to be an expert on museum matters in any way. My only claim to speak at all is that I was a trustee of the British Museum for 10 years. I retired last September, or I should not have dared to speak tonight. I might have been in a somewhat invidious position had I still been on the board.

I want to make only one point, which is quite enough at this hour, and I shall make it briefly. Reorganisation of the Victoria and Albert Museum seems to be based on the assumption that research and administration have to be separated. I regard that as totally wrong, in spite of what my noble friend Lord Eccles said. Of course, there are curators or keepers (according to the museum) who may be bad administrators. They may also be very irritating and awkward people. That is perfectly true. I am glad to say from my experience of the British Museum that I did not encounter awkward and difficult people, but that may have been luck.

I do not believe that curators or keepers need be bad administrators. The House should take note of what the noble Lord, Lord Annan, said about the possibility of such people being given some kind of training in administration before they take up their posts. Research and administration need not exist in separate compartments. The academic world—the university world—with which I am much more familiar than the museum world, offers many examples in which there are no such dichotomy. I suppose a classic case is the college over which the noble Lord, Lord Annan,presided—King's College, Cambridge—where the late Lord Keynes contrived to be a brilliant administrator and financier. He greatly augmented the wealth of the college and wrote books of immense learning and great value during that time. The two qualities are not incompatible.

I cannot believe that it is right to base the reorganisation of the Victoria and Albert Museum on the assumption, as it seems to be, that administration and scholarship should be separated in some way. If I may dare to say so, in my experience, at the British Museum they were not separated and they have not yet been separated. The place has not collapsed and there has been no great disorder or difficulty.

I regret to say that I am unhappy about these proposals for the Victoria and Albert Museum. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, will be able to allay those doubts. I greatly look forward to his speech and also to that of my noble friend Lady Trumpington. I will say no more except that I am glad the noble Lord, Lord Annan, raised this Question. I am sure that there are in most of your Lordships' minds many doubts which will need to be allayed when the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, speaks.

9.25 p.m.

Lord Goodman

My Lords, I wish to associate myself with the congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Annan, for having raised this matter. I also feel that the House can feel complacent and happy that it has found time to discuss something of great national interest. It is not really a matter that admits of party division. I have heard nothing here this evening that really addresses the matter that occurs to me as the major subject of complaint: that is, the nine individuals who have been disgracefully treated. That appears to be the matter to which we should address ourselves.

I have not heard a word from anyone. Possibly the most discreditable part of the proceedings is the way in which an attempted defence has been cooked up in order to say that the whole business is a division between the practical people who know how museums should be run and the mandarins of the arts, as they were described by the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles. That is an absolutely fanciful distinction. If we are to believe that the only people concerned with the just and humane treatment of the employees are the mandarins of the arts then I wish to convey my congratulations and good fortune to all such persons.

That appears to be the argument. As I said, I believe that this defence has been cooked up and is really the most discreditable part of the whole proceedings. I believe it has been cooked up because they could not find any other defence. To suggest that academics wish to appropriate the museum, that curators are not in the least concerned and that they hate the people who come in to the building is fanciful nonsense. It should not have been uttered and it is wrong that it has been. The simple question is that nine people have been shabbily and disgracefully treated.

Perhaps I may rehearse what happened to them. Apparently the discussion of this matter took some 15 minutes in order to consider a paper that was tabled at the meeting. It was not distributed in advance. I am asserting what I have heard and the facts may be wrong; it may be that the paper was distributed. Is it to be suggested that the fate of nine people who had given years of devoted service to that museum —some of them 30 years and one of them 40 years—should be decided in this way? Is it suggested that the right way to treat them is by allowing a decision to be reached after a 15-minute consultation on a paper that had not been read before? I believe that any private organisation that had behaved in that way would be stigmatised to high heaven. It is only a public organisation that can dare to treat people in that way.

I do not blame the curator or the chairman; I blame the people who appointed the trustees. I do not wish to stigmatise the trustees. I have examined the list and there are some of them who may have been qualified to perform their duties. It is quite clear that others of them had no qualifications. That is the real trouble. If those trustees had known what they were doing and had had any experience of how to deal with such a situation, they would not have tolerated for five minutes being asked to make a decision after a 15-minute survey of a difficult paper.

I do not know whether the reorganisation of this museum is right or wrong. I have not the least idea. Any expertise that I have is not in that direction. That is not the point. The point is whether or not it is more important to consider how to arrange furniture and objects than how to treat human beings. That is the real issue. That being so, I believe that the trustees have a heavy responsibility. Probably it attaches to the people who appointed them. If you are appointed to an office that requires a special knowledge and experience and you know that you have not got it, it is likely to make you very irresponsible as regards the discharge of your duties because the people who appointed you obviously do not take the appointment seriously.

I believe that to be the real answer here. The problem is that the trustees were incapable of performing their duties. Some of them must have known how thoroughly wrong it was to reach that decision after a 15-minute discussion. I do not blame the chairman. I hope the noble Lord will not regard this as embarrassing. I have the greatest regard and respect for the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong. I have had dealings with him over the years and I do not know anyone who has displayed more courage in the discharge of certain duties than he has. If I may say so, he is a man who has very willingly allowed himself to become a scapegoat and whipping boy for a number of situations that are not in the least his responsibility. He took on a job which presented him with this board of trustees. He was not in a position to remove them or to say that he wanted others. It is not surprising that he allowed them only 15 minutes. He must have realised that any longer deliberation would have been entirely useless.

One of the discussions here is about whether one can popularise scholarship. There is a way of popularising scholarship. There is a way whereby one can attract great numbers of unscholarly people to a greater respect for scholars. This can be quite a popular device. I should like to remind noble Lords of the famous radio or television broadcast—I cannot remember which—called "Animal, Vegetable or Mineral". The programme featured distinguished archaeologists. One of them was the first commanding officer of the territorial battery that I joined, Sir Mortimer Wheeler. His display at that performance was masterly. Others would say that the object presented was a Hittite doorknob. He would listen for a moment and then present the magisterially authoritative conclusion that it was an Assyrian water bottle.

That programme did more to arouse an interest in scholarship than 100 lectures and 100 dissertations published in learned works. I have another personal illustration. I helped—and I am glad that I helped—a distinguished archaeologist who unhappily died in Egypt while engaged in his archaeology. I refer to Professor Emery. He discovered the outer chamber of the Pharaoh who was, if I am not mistaken—I rely on a very inefficient memory—the originator of modern medicine. He never succeeded in finding the inner chamber because he died, alas, before his excavation could take place.

It was to the amazed discredit of the government that they would not provide one penny for this research. For that reason I remember organising a dinner to which I was at pains to invite only rich tycoons, who, one would have thought, had no interest whatever in archaeology. By the end of the evening, when Professor Emery had explained to them in simple terms what he was doing, he had captivated them completely. One does not need to suppose that ordinary human beings cannot be attracted by scholarship. To believe that by destroying scholarship one is in some way increasing the attraction of the institution is not only a fallacy but is a stupid fallacy.

On another occasion I gave a dinner—my dinners were always designed with the mischievous intent of extracting money from the rich—to the professor of archaeology at Oxford. He may by now have retired as it was so many years ago. He made the Fishbourne discovery. I cannot remember his name. He too described to the audience in the clearest possible terms what he was doing He aroused a profound interest and moreover succeeded in extracting considerable sums of money from them. This project was supported by the Sunday Times.

These illustrations are intended merely to convey that the notion that in order to popularise an institution that is supposed to be scholarly one needs to destroy the scholars is a total fallacy. One can encourage an immense amount of understanding by encouraging the scholars. What has happened in this case is too sad. The blame rests with the people who appointed the trustees. It is wrong to blame the trustees. Most of them had no qualifications for doing the job and insufficient administrative management or committee experience to protest at what was happening. What has happened is unfortunate.

I believe that the noble Earl, Lord Perth, with whom I have conferred if not conspired, has a suggestion to make about how the position can be put right. It is a notion with which I shall warmly agree. If there is a way to put this right, we should seize the opportunity. It is a discreditable exercise in the history of museums and of scholarship in this country. It brings discredit on the country and requires that some rectification should take place. If there is an opportunity to rectify it, we should seize it with alacrity.

9.34 p.m.

Viscount Knutsford

My Lords, I find myself at odds with previous speakers because they have all had great experience of museums whereas I have absolutely none. I can observe only from a base of ignorance and dare to voice some thoughts which I am afraid will certainly not be as profound and spicy as those voiced by the noble Lord, Lord Goodman.

The trustees at this fraught period in the distinguished history of the V&A should be actively involved in the continuing purpose of their charge or not involved at all. Surely they have taken the right decision to become more involved than hitherto by now stating certain objectives to enhance its public image, make the museum financially viable and modernise its standards in tune with the next century.

The hoped for outcome of those changes is to attract more and, I dare say, a mainly younger public to its collections and exhibitions—indeed, attendance figures have been falling drastically since 1983—and also to economise on expenditure, especially on staff costs, which, as we have heard, account for 83 per cent. of the total. In other words, the trustees are aiming to increase their income and contain their costs, so that they may aim for and anticipate a revenue surplus. Such surplus could be spent on preserving and displaying the objects in their care, not in carrying out badly needed repairs and renovations—for instance, to the 26 acres of roof which we have heard referred to more than once—which are at present inadequately funded by the Government and for which, as my noble friend Lord Carrington and the noble Lord, Lord Gibson, have already said, the Government certainly should be responsible.

The intention of the trustees is surely to demonstrate that they are doing their best to put the museum into a sound financial state so that the Government may be more sympathetic and approachable and more generous with grant aid. Perhaps the director has been insensitive in the way that she has initiated the changes; but should she not be allowed to carry them through in her own uninterrupted way without the critics foreboding that the changes are doomed to fail? It is inept to criticise and carp and to raise empty queries as to how various funcions will be organised in the future. They will evolve in the course of time. Further, if they have to be fine tuned, so be it.

Eight of the senior curatorial staff have met their Waterloo and it is said that it is a great waste of talent and that expertise and outstanding scholarship have been lost. Temporarily perhaps, but are there no scholarly under keepers who have been waiting a long time for promotion?

As this century draws to a close, all the national museums must adapt to current conditions in order to thrive. They must demonstrate that requirement in order to gain more support from government and, indeed, from the private sector, which is much more likely to patronise a tightly-run modernistic museum than an inefficient obsolescent institution which is sliding down the slope of insolvency.

That much-publicised affair may be honey to the art media but it is also a responsible attempt by the trustees to get more jam tomorrow to spread more thickly on their costly daily bread. They deserve the support of the critics and the Government's determined resolution to fund further capital expenditure.

9.40 p.m.

The Earl of Perth

My Lords, I join with many other noble Lords in welcoming the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Annan, opened the debate. After hearing those who have spoken, one realises the great need for such a debate to try to find ways to meet some of the troubles about which we have heard.

It is probably true that almost everyone accepts that some changes are needed. If one is to make changes one should do so early in one's directorship rather than wait. Having said that, we have run into trouble. Members of the art world are at one another's throats. That will be a bad thing if it goes on for too long.

Before I come to what we should do, let me touch upon my qualifications. Like the noble Lord, Lord Gibson, I was at one time on the V&A advisory council. I knew the last two directors well. I count myself fortunate also to know the present one who, I can assure all your Lordships, has great qualities. She has courage and is clear thinking. My other qualification is my belief, which others have echoed, that the V&A is held on too tight a rein. The noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, said at the beginning of his speech that it is under-funded. I believe that to be right. We are asking the V&A to make important changes without it having the money to do so.

I tried hard at the end of last year to suggest that the £100 million which did not go to the Thyssen collection should be channelled elsewhere, in particular to the V&A. I beg the Government to think carefully about finances.

The urgency of the financial trouble has led the director, the chairman and others to do things for which they would have liked a little more time. When the director was asked whether money was the main problem she said that time was of the essence. In other words, there was a pistol pointing at everyone's head.

We all know the sequel. It was the plan put before the trustees in January. I am not going into whether they were given a quarter of an hour to decide or whether the plan was appropriate. I wish to make three comments on the report. The first is that it wanted to divide administration and collection. That is probably right, but what worries me about the proposal is how administration is defined.

I noted that the paper said that there should be a clear-cut separation. The noble Lord, Lord Gibson, made the point which I shall make—that is wrong. There should be a separation, but it should not be so clear-cut that one group feels that it has nothing to do with what the other is up to. Having said that there must be a clear-cut separation, there was then the qualification that there needed to be close consultation between the administration group and the arts side, the collections. If that is so, then I think it is very clear that the administration side, as the situation is drawn, is going too far. Exhibitions, acquisitions and presentation are all part of the administration. My Lords, no; the role must to some degree also be that of the collections and arts side.

I think it is also true that the changes have been awkwardly brought about. I am not surprised; change is very difficult. I recall the famous night of the long knives when Mr. Harold Macmillan was Prime Minister. These activities are very difficult. If one is not very experienced one can cause a great deal of trouble.

The third comment I wish to make is that I am a little surprised to see that so much help has come from America. There are four young Americans to do one thing and another very senior American from the APM, whatever that may be, is voluntarily giving his services. I believe that we have facilities and people here who could have advised just as well, if not better, and who know the conditions here.

That brings me back to my first point: how tragic it is that there is in-fighting in the administration of the museum. Those outside have to play a very important part at some time or another. There is an outcry which I fear will not go away. Many noble Lords will have received the paper which I received about the special organisation set up to continue the fight. I have a suggestion in that connection and I hope it will be possible for the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, the director and the board of trustees to consider it. On their programme or plan I suggest that they should consider asking the Museums and Galleries Commission to examine the situation and to help in one way or another.

I believe that the Museums and Galleries Commission is rather reluctant to take on that task. However, when I read the remit of the Museums and Galleries Commission it is quite clear that if the board of trustees, the chairman and the director wish it, the commission has a function to perform. As regards the members of the commission, they need not all be involved, but half a dozen have great qualifications for trying to help and I use that phrase so far as it is appropriate.

The noble Lord, Lord Goodman, and I have discussed the subject and I think he feels with me that we should follow that. If the board of trustees felt able to do that, a lot of the outcry in the present situation might become less strident. I hope that something will come out of this which will calm everybody. As the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, said, neither he nor any of us knows whether all the proposals are right or wrong. But let us or the board take advantage of the expertise of the Museums and Galleries Commission to see where it can assist. Obviously the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, cannot commit his people, as he said, but I hope and believe that the pressures will lessen and the situation calm down.

I have one last request which is that when the progress continues, I hope that the directors and others involved with the museum will make progress reports so that all of us can follow what is happening. Progress reports do not have to be produced every week or every month, but only at an appropriate time. Let us keep in touch with what is happening. If things go well, we shall give the museum all the support we can. The aim of everyone is the well-being of the V&A.

9.50 p.m.

Lord Rees

My Lords, I enter this debate with some diffidence as, unlike many other noble Lords who have contributed to it, my qualifications are rather limited. Although I have been a regular visitor to the Victoria and Albert Museum during my adult life, unlike other noble Lords I have never been involved in the administration of that great institution, nor do I know many of the personalities involved. However, I am a member of the court and council of another museum, which is happily not faced with quite the same range of problems.

As it happens, I am also a member of the Museums and Galleries Commission. The noble Earl who has just spoken made what I took to be a flattering reference to the capabilities of the Museums and Galleries Commission. I am not entirely certain whether that commission is qualified or equipped to act in an arbitral role in this sensitive situation. I suspect that that is what the noble Earl had in mind. I must certainly emphasise that any views I express today are entirely my own. I am certainly not authorised to speak on behalf of my colleagues.

I shall be very happy, however, to draw the conclusions of the noble Earl to the attention of my colleagues. I have no doubt they will read the whole debate with extreme interest. But, as a member of the council of another museum and as a member of the commission, I am concerned to see what general principles can be extracted and what general lessons may be learnt from this rather melancholy episode.

The question set for our debate tonight by the noble Lord, Lord Annan, has, as one would suspect, been rather carefully constructed so as to enable such noble Lords as are so minded to make ritual denunciations of the parsimony of this Government's public expenditure policy. I flinch under the lash of my noble friend Lord Carrington, for, as Chief Secretary, I bore some responsibility for public expenditure at a certain point in my career. I had the pleasure of meeting the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, and his trustees at an earlier stage. I shall leave it to the noble Lord to say on another occasion whether they derived much satisfaction from that encounter. I am delighted also that the question draws into our debates a Government spokesman in the person of my noble friend Lady Trumpington. I have no doubt she will bring her normal robust good sense to conclude the fevers of debate.

As I see the position, I doubt whether the Government have much direct responsibility in this matter. However, I shall endeavour to deal with the cogent points put by noble Lords from various sides of the House. I readily concede, as general questions of museum administration and indeed of the cultural life of this country are involved, and as the Victoria and Albert Museum is a most distinguished national institution, that its affairs must be a perfectly proper subject for our debate.

I also concede that the Government are responsible in a large measure, although not exclusively, for funding the national museums and galleries. But I think it is a little far-fetched and rather distorts the tenor of the debate to trace to the Government's public expenditure policy the genesis of the problems with which the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, and his fellow trustees have had to deal. If one were to explore that further, it would lead to a rather repetitious debate because this question has been the subject of so many debates both here and in another place. Indeed, as a former Chief Secretary, I would be more concerned to see whether the income of any particular museum has been well controlled and well spent.

I was not impressed by the fact that 83 per cent. of the income of the Victoria and Albert Museum was spent on salaries. Two conclusions could be drawn from that: first, that the museum was underfunded or, secondly, that it was not well administered. There is a need for all great institutions, whether in the private or public sector, to have a regular critical, searching, shake-up of their administrative procedures and their staff from time to time, painful though that may be for those who are subjected to that scrutiny.

The Government are responsible for the appointment of the chairman and trustees. Beyond that, responsibility for the running of the museum or gallery must rest with those trustees. If I have the constitutional position wrong, no doubt the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, whose speech we eagerly await, will correct me. That said, I am surprised that so many noble Lords who have taken issue with the Government's approach to cultural questions and questions of the arts should find that unattractive. I should have thought that they would have applauded any measures to put a little distance between the administration of those great institutions and the shifts of Government policy.

It might be proper, although a little tasteless, to debate the personalities and qualifications of the chairman and the trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, is capable of defending himself and his actions, but his colleagues are not represented here or perhaps so well equipped to defend themselves. I suspect, however, that in this particular area governments, of whatever party, will always be thought to have got it wrong. Whether partisan bias is attributed to them or lack of sensitivity, criticism is always made of the appointments they make in this very sensitive field.

In relation to the implication of the vigorous points made by the noble Lords, Lord Hutchinson and Lord Goodman, I should point out that the reservoir of people who are equipped, by their stringent standards, to perform satisfactorily the role of trustee of a great national institution is nothing like so large as they would imagine.

Lord Goodman

My Lords, will the noble Lord give way for a moment? Since an interpretation is being put on what I said, perhaps I may make it absolutely clear that I am concerned only about the way the people in question were treated. It is not a question of whether the trustees are well equipped to deal with museum problems; it is a question of whether they are well equipped to deal with human problems.

Lord Rees

My Lords, certain slighting comments were made—I think that that was the implication—by the noble Lord, and other noble Lords, of the qualifications of those with a business background to sit among the trustees. I should have thought that business people frequently have to deal with the practical consequences of the contraction or takeover of a business. If I have misinterpreted what the noble Lord said, I shall very readily withdraw.

However, he said—and I think that I made an accurate record—that there was no point in giving the trustees more than a quarter of an hour to consider the paper that was circulated (and I make no comment on the amount of time that was given to them) because they would not have understood the implications of what they were called on to do. If I have not recorded what was said accurately I shall readily withdraw and give way to the noble Lord should he wish to intervene again.

Lord Goodman

My Lords, I do not wish to make a second speech, but I did not mention a businessman in the course of my speech. I welcome well-informed businessmen because they know how to treat their staff.

Lord Rees

My Lords, it may be that the thrust of the noble Lord's remarks was not directed at any particular commercial qualification. However, I believe that he was fairly brutal in his condemnation of the intellectual qualifications of the trustees over whom the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, has to preside.

Much of the debate both inside this Chamber and outside it has concentrated, sometimes in a veiled manner and sometimes explicitly, on the personalities, defects, qualities and methods of the various people involved. Of course, that may be inevitable. I well understand the sensitivities of those people who have given long and distinguished service to the museum and whose careers may have been terminated. It would perhaps be idle for me to express the hope that they will be treated as generously as may be within the constraints under which a public institution operates.

However, I must say that, in spite of some experience of the rough and tumble of debate in another place, I have been surprised by the sharpness and acerbity of debate both inside this Chamber and in the world outside. I had always assumed that debates in the world of the arts would be characterised by a taste and refinement which is absent from the brutal world of politics. I have been sadly disabused of that illusion.

I believe that a more fruitful area of debate from which some general conclusions may be usefully drawn concerns the structure of management of a great national institution and how a proper balance may be struck between administration, presentation—which is not necessarily the same thing as administration—and scholarship. Each aspect of a museum's activities demands different skills. As the noble Lord, Lord Gibson, perceptively observed, such skills are rarely found combined in one person.

The new structure proposed for the Victoria and Albert Museum might appear to involve a clear divide between curatorial and scholarly functions. I suspect that after a few years, like so many reforms undertaken in this country, the substance may prove to be rather different from the form and that the changes will turnout to be less acute than they threaten to be at the moment. I cannot believe that in a small society, such as that constituted by a museum, cross-fertilisation will not occur and that individuals will not move from one discipline to another or from one department to another. For the moment I suspend judgment. I believe that the trustees, the new management and the new structure deserve the benefit of doubt.

It must also be recalled that the reforms were undertaken in response, first, to the report of the National Audit Office and then to the report of the Public Accounts Committee—and all those trained in parliamentary life and government have learned to genuflect, whether rightly or wrongly, to that august Gladstonian body. The report of the Public Accounts Committee required more than a merely formal and superficial response. Later and, I hope, detached from the heat and dust of controversy that this episode has generated, we may be able to see whether those measures at the Victoria and Albert Museum have succeeded in attaining their objectives and whether any general lessons can be learned by other museums and galleries. For the moment, I can only wish that great institution well.

10.3 p.m.

Lord Armstrong of Ilminster

My Lords, I must declare an interest as chairman of that much maligned, much abused body, the Board of Trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If I were to try to answer all the points that have been raised about the museum, noble Lords would be here late into the night. In addition, I should steal the thunder of the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, whose winding up contribution and answers to some of the questions I much look forward to hearing. I thought that I would deal with the easy ones myself and leave her with the snorters.

Perhaps I could just touch on one or two questions. The noble Lord, Lord Annan, asked about charging institutions for the services provided by the museum. Let me reassure him that the trustees have no plans for instituting charges for services, although if funding becomes much tighter we may have to think about charging the Government. I should say that that is a joke. The noble Lord asked about the advertising campaign last year and whether it was proper that the contract should have gone to Saatchi and Saatchi. The noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, may wish to comment on that, but I simply say that Saatchi and Saatchi have been the agents for the Victoria and Albert Museum for a long time, long before Mr. Maurice Saatchi came on to the board as a trustee. Mr. Saatchi takes no part in the arrangement of the contracts or in the arrangements made under them, although as a trustee he is there if and when we discuss those matters on the board.

I shall be dealing with much of what the noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson of Lullington, said in the main part of my speech. The noble Lord, Lord Kennet, and others have commented unfavourably on some of the exhibitions that have taken place in the Victoria and Albert Museum when they have been sponsored by commercial concerns. A good deal of fun has been had about the Sock Shop. There are three reasons for having exhibitions of this kind. I hope that the noble Lord will think that they are good ones. The first is that we are the national museum of art and design. We are the national museum of contemporary design. We take pride in having artefacts of contemporary design in textiles, ceramics, metalwork and in other parts of the museum. I believe that it is wholly within the museum's terms of reference that it should have exhibitions which enable us to show the best of contemporary design.

The second reason—and it is the reason that applied in particular to the Elton John exhibition—is that such exhibitions, which are lively, encourage young people to come to the museum. In that period the exhibition brought in a large number of visitors, —much larger than we normally have, and some did not just go to the Elton John exhibition but came to the museum itself. It seems to me a very good thing that people should come into the museum in this way and learn to think of it not just as a historic museum of dead gothic sculptures and the rest. Of course those exhibitions bring us in a little money, and we are not reluctant to accept it. However, I should not like noble Lords to think that that was the primary objective of the exhibitions. They serve the purposes of the museum in illustrating contemporary design and bringing people into it.

The noble Lord, Lord Kennet, also asked about disposals and implied that they will increase. I shall return to that in a moment or two.

I shall be dealing with much of the other comments as I go along. I shall come to the main body of what I should like to say. First, on the trustees, when it is not being suggested that we are gutless, it is suggested, as it was by the noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson, that we are a bunch of hard-faced businessmen dedicated exclusively to saving money and avoiding loss, without regard for the purposes for which the museum exists or the welfare of the staff. It is quite simply untrue.

The trustees come from various and varied backgrounds. Some from politics. I am sorry that my colleague on the board of trustees, the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, cannot be here tonight. He has been unwell. I am glad to say that he is making a good recovery. Otherwise I am sure that he would be with us tonight. Some trustees come from the public service. I need say no more. Others come from the arts, the academic world, from the world of designers and from connoisseurship, as well as from industry and commerce. The hard-faced businessmen, if I may quote the phrase that has been used, are very much in the minority. All these people accept appointment because they care for and are happy to work for the museum. They give it a lot of unpaid time and they bring to their service a balance of appreciation of the artistic and scholarly values of the museum and an understanding of the practical problems of managing a large organisation.

There is some suggestion that we are all appointed with some undisclosed and sinister mandate from the Prime Minister. We are of course all appointed by the Prime Minister because that is how Parliament said that we should be appointed in the National Heritage Act. But none of us is given any mandate by the Prime Minister other than that implied or stated in the definition of our responsibilities in the Act of Parliament. If one looks down the names of trustees, one sees that it is no more than a bad joke to suggest that they are appointed because each trustee is "one of us", I believe is the phrase, or is there to do the Prime Minister's bidding. They have accepted appointment simply with the objective of serving the best interests of the museum.

The noble Lord, Lord Kennet, hinted at a third point, that perhaps one reason why the trustees have approved the proposals for restructuring is that we want to go for a systematic policy of disposal in order to finance running costs. Again that is quite untrue. The trustees' powers to dispose are defined in statute and they are narrowly limited. We have only recently informed the Minister for the Arts, in answer to a consultation paper issued by him, that we do not seek any extension of those powers. We are there to be custodians and preservers of the heritage of collections in the museum and not to knock them down to the highest bidder.

The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, said most of what I wanted to say about the director of the museum. I deplore as strongly as anybody the personal and sometimes vicious attacks that have been made on her, and most of all the attack made on her by her predecessor who does not know her. It was an astonishing and shameful example of rancour and spite.

I sometimes believe that one of the director's problems is that she is not a member of what is sometimes called the Courtauld Mafia. I regret to say that in some cases it looks as though one of her faults, which I am afraid she cannot do anything about, is that she is a woman. I was not a trustee when the director was appointed so I cannot be held responsible for the appointment but I should have been perfectly happy to be. It was an extremely good appointment. She is a highly intelligent, competent, courageous and caring person. She has a first-class honours degree in art history and understands and values scholarship. She came to the museum first in 1985 to take charge of the National Art Library, and as the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, said she has transformed that. She has been in the V&A quite long enough to hold well-informed and clear views of the museum's strengths, weaknesses, needs and opportunities.

One of the charges made is that the, curatorial staff were not sufficiently consulted before the director's plans for restructuring were put before the trustees. If it is said that the curators were rot consulted on the specific document of proposals put to the trustees, that is true, but the proposals came after a prolonged process of discussion inside the museum, both at formal meetings and informal gatherings, extending over many months. In the course of those discussions various possible structures were canvassed, including a structure which was much along the lines of that now proposed. The discussions showed that there was a considerable measure of agreement among the curatorial staff on the problems which the museum faced and on the objectives which the museum should be setting itself. It was clear that there was no prospect of agreement on matters of organisation between those who were deeply and sincerely attached to the status quo and those who accepted that some change was a necessary condition for dealing with the problems and achieving the objectives.

The director listened to all the points of view through all the long months of discussion. She did not start with a preconceived commitment to the changes she eventually proposed, but gradually over the months of discussion she came to the conclusion that tinkering with the existing organisation would not be sufficient and that what was needed was radical change. Before bringing her proposals to the board the director discussed them with the board's senior staff appointments committee, by whom they were unanimously agreed, so that when they came before the board there was a body of trustees already familiar with the proposals.

Representatives of the staff were informed about the proposals in strict confidence or the morning of 26th January. That was not consultation. Inevitably perhaps, the proposals leaked immediately that morning not only around the museum but to the press. The board of trustees discussed them in the afternoon. The paper was available to trustees to read only 15 or 30 minutes before the meeting, but it is not true to say that the discussion, as it were, started cold. The trustees had been informed about the progress of discussions inside the museum over many months and they were well aware of the issues that were involved.

Some trustees would undoubtedly have liked to have had more time to consider all the detailed implications and they said so. But the restructuring proposal was generally welcomed and approved of. There was a long discussion, not merely a 15 minute discussion, to which every trustee present contributed. They all endorsed the proposals in principle. It was accepted, particularly as the proposals had leaked, that it was important to avoid a period of prolonged uncertainty. It was also accepted that it would be impossible to consider the detailed implementation of the proposals until they were agreed in principle and had been made public. Therefore the proposals were unanimously approved by the trustees.

It was clear from the papers considered by the senior staff appointments commit tee and by the trustees that, as under the restructuring proposals the materials departments as such would disappear, the posts of the keepers of those departments would cease to exist. Under the Civil Service rules—the procedures which apply in museums as an inheritance from the days when they were a department of the Civil Service—management is under an obligation to offer voluntary redundancy terms to staff whose posts are to cease to exist. Offers were made accordingly—in the most generous terms available to us under the rules of the scheme—to nine members of the curatorial staff including five keepers of departments, on 3rd February. Those concerned were asked to respond within 14 days. Eight of the nine accepted the offer and will cease to be employed as members of the staff of the museum at the end of this week. The ninth elected not to accept the offer and is being found new duties in the museum.

The management has been accused of precipitate haste in that process. There were two reasons for proceeding without delay. The announcement of the proposals inevitably created great uncertainty in the museum. It was felt—and the Treasury advised us —that in such circumstances there was much to be said for moving sooner rather than later in order to reduce uncertainty. The Treasury also advised that in Civil Service practice two weeks was a reasonable period in which to give those concerned an opportunity to consider their response to the offers made.

The other factor is that, for unavoidable reasons, there were unspent funds in the museum's building grant for the current financial year. The Office of Arts and Libraries was prepared to allow them to be used to meet the costs of the redundancies. It had to be assumed that those funds would not be available after 31st March, 1989, because if they are not used by the end of the financial year they are lost. The museum's financial prospect for the financial year 1989–90 was such that it was clear that it would be virtually impossible to find the money in that financial year.

It has been alleged that the meetings with the director at which the offers of voluntary redundancy were made were brief. If so, it was by the choice of those concerned and not by the director. She would have been ready for more extended meetings and would have agreed to see anyone who wished to return—as one or two did—in order to have further discussions before deciding whether to accept the offer. Some of those concerned sought clarification of the terms of the offer from the staff of the museum. But the first the director heard from most of them was in the form of a letter sent to her 11 days after the offers were made by a firm of solicitors which had been instructed only the previous day. Those concerned were under no compulsion or pressure from the management to accept the offer. It was open to them to find out from their union or legal advisers, if not from the management, the kinds of possibilities and choices that would be open to them if they did not do so.

The acceptance of voluntary redundancy does not preclude a continuing association with the museum as a consultant or adviser. I am glad to be able to tell your Lordships that two of the eight people concerned have already agreed to act in that capacity. I am glad that their knowledge and experience will continue to be available to the museum. I shall be glad to know that others concerned might be interested in such possibilities.

I should like to explain the proposals briefly because I find that there exists some uncertainty about them——

Lord Hutchinson of Lullington

My Lords, will the noble Lord give way because he is now turning away from the general thrust of the criticisms which have been made? He has not dealt with the main attack which was launched on the meeting of 26th January which was this. There was not one mention in the paper put before the trustees that nine scholars would be offered redundancy. There was not one word about it nor was anything said in the interview with journalists from The Times three days later. That was the point that was being put.

Lord Armstrong of Ilminster

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. At the meeting on 26th January the trustees were well aware that there would be what is sometimes called "a human cost". It was not specifically set out in the paper, but it was of course made clear that the disappearance of the departments in question would mean that certain posts would cease to exist and the position of the keepers concerned was clearly something which was going to have to be dealt with. So although the paper is not clear about it, I can assure your Lordships that the fact that there would be such a course was in the minds of the trustees at that meeting.

To turn back to the proposals themselves, the museum has been organised for the past 80 years into materials-based departments each in the charge of a keeper with responsibility for all aspects, collection management as well as scholarship and research, of a particular type of objects, ceramics, textiles and so on. The noble Lord, Lord Blake, said, I think, that it was not necessary to separate research and administration. I understand and sympathise with that point of view, but the fact is that collection management has become increasingly complex and technical. Curators for many years have been complaining that the requirements of collection management are reducing the time and resource that they have available for scholarly work. At the same time, as several of your Lordships have reminded us, the museum has come under severe criticism in another place for its shortcomings in collection management.

The director's proposals are designed to provide more opportunities for curators to pursue the work of scholarship and research by concentrating those aspects of the work in a new research department, relieved of the obligations and responsibilities for collection management. That will be undertaken by a new registrar's department, which will specialise in those aspects of the museum's responsibilities. In any organisation, as your Lordships will well know, you have to break it down in one way or another into departments. The lines may go this way or that way, but whichever way the departmental lines are drawn, it becomes necessary to create cross-liaisons if the operation is to be successfully carried out. So it is in the museum.

Both these departments will be staffed by members of the curatorial grades. There will be arrangements for close liaison between them, as well as crosspostings—to take up the point referred to by one speaker—which will ensure that members of the curatorial staff reach senior levels with experience of both departments. Two new assistant director posts are being created to support the director and take some of the load off the director. Both the research department and the registrar's department will come under the supervision of the assistant director (collections). I agree very much with the noble Lord, Lord Gibson, that that is a crucial appointment. We are taking a great deal of trouble about it and we are determined to make the best possible appointment we can of a curator, or somebody with experience of that kind in the museum world, who will have the knowledge and the personal qualities to command the confidence and respect of the staff.

The research department, as the director has described it, will be the power-house of the museum. It will have groups of staff specialising in particular classes of objects, rather like departments in a university faculty. Members of the research department will be responsible for advising the director and the trustees on acquisitions and disposals. They will be consulted about the display of objects in the museum and about loans from other institutions. They will be assured of immediate, direct and unrestricted access to the objects which are the subject of their study and research. The museum will continue to provide through the research department the service of advice and opinions which it now provides to other museums and learned institutions, to the art trade and to the Government.

It is fighting with false fire to suggest that these proposals, or the departure of five keepers, spell the end of object-based scholarship at the V&A. Of course the trustees regret the departure of the keepers and the others who have decided to accept an offer of voluntary redundancy. It represents a loss of resource to the museum, which will be diminished to the extent that those concerned wish, or are able, to act as consultants or advisers. But to suggest or imply that these events will mark the end of scholarship at the V&A is not only absolutely without justification: it is, as the noble Viscount, Lord Knutsford, pointed out, extremely unfair to the considerable number of other distinguished scholarly curators in the museum.

I should simply add that at their meeting this morning the trustees re-affirmed their support for the proposals which were approved on the 26th January, invited the director to make recommendations as soon as possible on their detailed implementation and agreed that a committee of trustees should be established to assist the director and advise the trustees on matters related to that implementation. I should also say that there are and will be arrangements for close consultation of the staff about the implementation because of course the success or otherwise of the proposals will rest on the detailed arrangements made to put them into effect.

I was interested in the suggestion made by the noble Earl, Lord Perth, that the Museums and Galleries Commission should be brought into the picture. If a body of trustees is appointed to run such a place as the Victoria and Albert Museum, I think that it has to be allowed to get on with the job. That is the job that it is appointed to do. I suspect that that will be the view of the Museums and Galleries Commission. I should not feel able to commit the museum to seeking the advice of the commission without consulting my fellow trustees and, of course, the director. If in the process of detailed implementation there are points that the MGC thinks that it can usefully offer, we shall listen with great interest and respect. We have a good relationship.

The purposes of the trustees and the director can be readily summarised. They are to maintain and improve standards of scholarship; to improve standards of object conservation and collection management so that we can meet the criticisms made of that; to make our collections more accessible and attractive to the public so as to make more people aware of the variety, splendour and beauty of the objects in our collections and of their historical and cultural meaning and importance—that is why we hope to open a branch of the museum in Bradford—and to play what I hope will be an increasing part in public education at all levels, school, higher and adult.

All that has to be achieved within the manpower and financial resources available to the museum. This is not the occasion for me to moan about financial stringency. Your Lordships have done it for me. I shall simply reiterate the concern that we all feel—I am sure that the concern is not confined to the Victoria and Albert Museum—at the way in which the costs rise, as a result of decisions not taken within the institutions, very much faster than the i funds available to us from government. That is a process that cannot go on for ever. This financial stringency at least imposes upon us and those responsible for managing the museum the necessity as well as the duty of managing every aspect of it as efficiently and effectively as possible.

I put the maintenance and improvement of standard of scholarship first because that is not an optional extra; it is fundamental to the achievement of all the other purposes. The director would never have made her restructuring proposals and the trustees would never have approved them if they had believed that they would threaten scholarship in the museum. They recognise the importance of what has been described as continuity of scholarship and believe that the proposals will help to preserve that continuity and promote high standards of scholarship and research. Whether we can go so far as the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, suggested and employ scholars to write biographies of Proust I am not sure. With our present financial situation I am not sure that we can afford outdoor relief for students of French literature or other studies wholly unrelated to the purposes and collections of the museum.

In the public debate that has followed the announcement of the proposals I have detected an underlying profound but I think unspoken difference of view about the purposes of the museum. I have received, as have all my fellow trustees, many letters of concern, clearly often deeply felt, about the proposals. Some were from ceramics and textile departments as far a field as California. I respect that concern, although for the reasons that I have given I think that it is unfounded.

All the letters that I have received come from what might be termed insiders; from other museums, from societies interested in the kind of objects that the V&A has in its collection and a few from the trade. It is not clear that all of my correspondents have fully understood the nature of the proposals but all are concerned that the restructuring and the departure of the five keepers will mean the decline or death of scholarship at the V&A and of the role it plays in the world of art scholarship. Not one of them mention the role that the museum plays, or should play, in serving the wider public.

If it is the new museology—an unlovely word—to want to improve the accessibility and attractiveness of the museum to the general public and to play a greater part in public education, the trustees and the director must plead guilty to being new museologists. I prefer to see it as a fulfilment of the public responsibility laid upon the trustees by Parliament and a reaffirmation of the ideals and aspirations which inspired the founders of this and other artistic and education institutions in South Kensington in the 19th century. That is the point made by the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles.

Sir Henry Cole, the first director of the museum in the mid-1850s, defined the purposes of the V&A as being, first, to educate the public in matters of design; secondly, to educate designers by exhibiting the finest examples from the past; and, thirdly, to educate historians who wish to write about design. As the museum has developed it sometimes seems as if we are in danger of concentrating on the third of these purposes to the exclusion of the first two. The V&A is unique in the variety and size of its collections: the greatest collection of European sculpture outside Italy; one of the largest collections of ceramics in the world; and the largest collection of Indian objects outside the sub-continent. Diversity is in the very nature of this museum and the richness and splendour of its collections carries with it the responsibility for making them as accessible and as attractive to the public as we can and as resources allow.

We now have to turn our attention, as trustees, to the task of implementing the proposals to make sure that we achieve the objects I have described. The efficacy of the restructuring will, of course, depend not only on the leadership of the director but also on the understanding and co-operation of the staff, which I am sure she will have. It will take some time to bring the restructuring into effect and it will be a year or two before it is possible to begin to assess the effectiveness of the changes. However, the director and the trustees are determined that they shall, and we confidently believe that they will, serve the purposes which I have described and prove to be of great benefit to the health and welfare of the museum and to its standing and reputation as the national museum of art and design and, I am proud to say, one of the greatest museums in the world.

Lord Goodman

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, and having regard to the hour, can he tell the House whether at this fateful meeting the trustees were told that the employees concerned would have their employment terminated on this sort of notice? They would have 14 days in which to make a decision and they were not told of the alternative; that if they refused to accept redundancy they would have their employment terminated. The noble Lord has given, if I may say so, a masterly dissertation on the nature of the museum but he has not addressed himself to the matters that trouble me.

Lord Armstrong of Ilminster

My Lords, the trustees were aware that early retirement would be involved. How that early retirement would come about was not clear. We were under obligation, as I mentioned in my speech, to offer voluntary redundancy in the first instance. For what reason I cannot say, the advice we were given by those best qualified to give it was that we were not to discuss with those concerned the alternatives at that stage. That would not, of course, have prevented them from discussing it with their unions or their legal advisers. We were precluded from a discussion of the alternatives at that stage.

Lord Goodman

My Lords, can the noble Lord say who gave that extraordinary advice?

Lord Armstrong of Ilminster

My Lords, the advice came from the Government.

10.34 p.m.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, this has been a long but enthralling debate and I shall endeavour not to delay the House for too long.

I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, has taken part in the debate. His statement that the maintenance and improvement of scholarship must be at the top of the priorities is welcome to me and, I think, to all who are here. I do not know how far it answers some of the points made in the very strong speech introducing this debate by the noble Lord, Lord Annan. Basically I am in favour of the new structure that is suggested. It was quite obvious that something had to be done about the museum. It is not as if it was progressing from the status quo, working extremely well, or that it was not short of money.

Having read the various papers and talked to people, and having heard the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, I still have an uneasy feeling about the secrecy that seems to have covered so much of what took place. The noble Lord, Lord Goodman, tried to get an answer from the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, about the advice that nothing should be said to anybody. We immediately have a very secret kind of operation in which there was only 15 minutes to consider the plan. Again, I feel that this is all in aid of some quite unnecessary secrecy that in the end resulted, as we have all seen, in a situation that is going to take some time to calm down and for peace to be restored.

The noble Lord said that the Treasury felt that there was much to be said for moving sooner rather than later, but I do not believe that sooner means almost immediately and without any warning. If it was necessary to get rid of a number of the keepers at that time—and some of them were near retirement anyway—it could have been worked out over a reasonably short period. I believe that is extremely important when one considers the human cost, which is a matter that should have been considered throughout. In answer to a question put by the noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson, the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, said that the trustees were told that there would be a human cost, but they were not told exactly what it would be, since, as we all know, the question of redundancy for nine people does not appear in any of the papers.

The noble Lord mentioned the question of the trustees. The noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson, made a point about this, as well as the noble Lord, Lord Annan. There is no one among the trustees who has any experience of working in a museum. We know that there is one vacancy because Professor Kemp has resigned. Will this fact be made a point of so that we have a more mixed flavour of people, if I may put it that way, than there is among the trustees at the moment?

I agree that it is important to have business people on such bodies. When I was a Minister at the Department of the Environment I also appointed such people. But there is too much of a sense of business among them and not enough of art and knowledge of museums, which I believe is extremely important. For some years I was a governor of the British Film Institute and we had a wide range of people with expertise and knowledge in different fields. Always there was a nucleus of people who really understood and who were involved in film-making, distribution and the industry generally. One knew that there was this built-in expertise.

When I was a Minister at the Department of the Environment I was responsible for the upkeep of the fabric of the museum, whereas the Minister with responsibility for the arts was responsible for the content. In that delightful part of my job I spent a considerable amount of time visiting different museums, getting to know the directors and many of the keepers and also the boards of trustees. One felt that those boards of trustees were a more mixed cultural bag then there appears to be at the moment at the V&A. One could have conversations about the museum with people who were concerned about these matters. One cannot for the sake of sponsorship go too far outside that circle.

The noble Lord said that the people were not compelled to accept the offer. It seems to me that a gun was placed against their heads. Does he realise the damage caused by the way in which it was done? The director has said that if she had to do it again she would do it rather differently, which was, I thought, a frank admission. In mentioning her I must also say a few words in support of those noble Lords who rightly complained about the treatment she received both in sexist terms and because she was so often referred to as a mere librarian. I am sure that I do not have to remind the House that Frank Francis, a one time director of the British Museum, was a librarian. He was proud of the fact and boasted about it.

I am not clear about how all these plans will work. There are many gaps in the explanations put forward. Even the paper for trustees strikes me as rather an inadequate document. I agree that most trustees worth their salt would have either objected or said that they needed longer to read it. They would have asked for another emergency meeting and insisted on having the time to go through it to understand it properly. The plans that are to be put into operation are not clear enough. I should like to be convinced that there will be no loss of scholarship and research and that this plan will work to the advantage of the museum. The chairman, the trustees and the director must explain it in greater detail to us all.

This has gone beyond the museum world. I do not believe it essential that one should have the collection, the management and the research absolutely tied together like siamese twins. When Kenneth Clark wrote his great book on Leonardo, he was not the curator of the drawings at Windsor; and nor did he have to be. He had access to the exhibits, which was the main thing. He did not need to manage, and may well have been delighted that someone else had to do so.

We must all try to get the whole thing moving. On Monday night I was at the party at Fishmongers' Hall. It was more of a lively wake than a party. I must tell the noble Lord, who I do not suppose was there——

Lord Armstrong of Ilminster

I was not invited!

Baroness Birk

I am sorry to hear that, but I must stress that I was not giving the party. However, my Lords, there was a feeling of anger. indeed, one could breathe the anger and despair in the air. It seemed that what had been done had—however unwittingly—created that feeling, and that it was something which really ought to be put right as soon as possible.

It was suggested to me that the proposal put forward by the noble Earl, Lord Perth, might be a way to deal with the situation—that is, to let the Museums and Galleries Commission carry out an inquiry into the matter. However, the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, is quite right when he says that unless the trustees ask for that to be done and are prepared to embark upon such a course of action, one cannot go along that road. But, if they do, I think that any road one can go along to get some form of reconciliation would be welcomed, so that the whole matter can be dampened down. Further, I am quite sure that if any of us who have taken part in the debate can do anything which is within our powers, we shall most certainly do so. I say that because the one thing which we all have in common in what has really been I think a pretty moderate debate—indeed, I thought that feelings might fly even higher—is our feeling of goodwill and also our great affection towards the museum. We are all anxious to see the matter sorted out, even if it means that some words have to be eaten all round and some reverses of policy undertaken. In my view, the end is worth those means.

10.46 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Baroness Trumpington)

My Lords, I should like to echo the last words expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, when she spoke with affection about the V&A. I have no qualifications, save perhaps those of a consumer in that I visit museums. My noble friend Lord Eccles spoke of mandarins and I am highly conscious of the fact that I shall have to tread warily like Agag when following such a galaxy of eminence this evening. I understand so well my noble friend's references to children. I used to take parties of Leys boys around the Fitzwilliam Museum and many a hand did I slap. Indeed, I used to make the boys write to me after such expeditions and received such replies as, "Loved the armour; hated the crockery". I just hope that a reply later in life would show a little more appreciation for Bow, Famille Rose and Kaendler.

I think we would all agree that the Victoria and Albert Museum can be justly proud of its high standards of scholarship and research: and as an institution of international renown it needs to build on this reputation, encouraging younger scholars to maintain the high standards that we have come to expect.

It is worth remembering the four main functions of the trustees as set out under the governing statute, the National Heritage Act, 1983, which are as follows: to care for, preserve and add to the objects in their collections; to secure that the objects are exhibited to the public; to secure that the objects are generally available to persons seeking to inspect them in connection with study or research; and to generally promote the public's enjoyment and understanding of art, craft and design, both by means of the board's collections and by such other means as they consider appropriate. That is the base from which reorganisation stems. I say especially to the noble Lord, Lord Annan, and the noble Lord, Lord Kennet—who I see is not now in his place—that it is most important to remember that the responsibility lies with the trustees and not the Minister.

There can be no question of interference in the management. The V&A has the principle of devolution of authority, which is correct in such matters. The restructuring decisions are a matter for the board of trustees and the director only. They do not require government sanction.

There has been some concern in the media that curatorial staff will no longer have access to the collections. It is my understanding that is not the case. The experts in the proposed department of research will have immediate access to objects in the collection and will be consulted about display and storage of those objects. The research department will also advise on acquisitions and will be responsible for cataloguing the collections in their care. Freed from the responsibilities of day to day housekeeping and working closely with the objects, the scholars will be able to concentrate further on research and extending our knowledge and understanding of the collections. Concern about the nature of the registrar's department expressed in the media has also been based on misunderstandings; in fact it will be staffed essentially by curators, knowledge and experience of the objects being essential skills for the job.

The objectives of the director and trustees are worthwhile and I believe that they should be supported. The proposed changes, which will be introduced over the next three years and which will be constantly monitored by the director and senior management, are in response to the changing needs of the museum. They have emerged from full staff consultation within the museum during the past year.

The board itself consists of individuals drawn from every field of experience, including scholarship, the arts, business and the public service. Each trustee is chosen for the skills and experience that he or she can bring to the museum.

There has been speculation in the media, which your Lordships may have seen, on relations between senior management and staff at the museum. That is naturally a matter for the director and trustees. However, my right honourable friend the Minister for the Arts, in another place, attaches great importance to management of staff and sees this as a key issue in any restructuring plans for the museum. Indeed, earlier this week, in another place, he assured honourable Members that the director is most anxious to maintain good relations with the staff and is making every effort to sustain high morale.

The Government themselves have had no part to play in directing policy at the Victoria and Albert Museum and I am confident that your Lordships will agree that this is surely right. The Minister has pursued his policy of devolution of authority, believing the board and the director more suitable to decide where their priorities must lie and how the museum should move ahead. Your Lordships may be assured that any funding implications this year deriving from the reorganisation will be met wholly from the museum's own resources. No additional money has been offered by the Treasury or the Office of Arts and Libraries in relation to these proposals.

I shall quickly skip through some of the questions asked of me which the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, did not cover in his very able speech. The noble Lord, Lord Annan, asked whether the trustees had informed the Office of Arts and Libraries of their view of the dispute. Yes, consultation has taken place. He also asked whether a trustee should benefit from his position. It is accepted that propriety must always be observed. If a subject is to be discussed in which a trustee has an interest that must be declared.

The noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, and many other noble Lords referred to the museum's financial state. Since 1978–80, the Government's grant to the Victoria and Albert Museum for running costs has increased substantially in real terms. The allocations which the Minister for the Arts announced last November, rolling forward the three-year settlements to 1991–92 will give the Victoria and Albert Museum a grant-in-aid totalling £24 million, including increases to help the museum to deal specifically with its priority concerns in the management of the collections and in the maintenance and refurbishment of the building.

My noble friend Lord Eccles, who has a very distinguished past in the world of the arts, said that some other museums have made substantial changes to their organisations. He is right. The National Maritime Museum and the Science Museum are two of the most recent examples.

Training courses were mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Annan. There are currently major developments in museum training. Key skills and competencies are being identified for all members of museum staff. The Minister for the Arts recently announced the establishment of a museums training institute, a subsidiary of the Museums Association.

The noble Lord, Lord Gibson, asked who would be responsible for loans. Decisions on loans will be taken by the registrar's department, which will be largely staffed by curators. Staff in curatorial departments will be consulted.

The noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, made a statement on the fact that voluntary redundancy terms had to be offered first. I think he said that the Government gave this advice. In point of fact the advice was given by the Treasury Personnel Policy Group. These are the experts in dealing with such matters.

I listened with interest to the words of the noble Earl, Lord Perth, concerning the commission. Equally, on the same subject, both my noble friend Lord Rees and the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, made their stance clear. It is of course a matter for the trustees to decide.

The noble Baroness, Lady Birk, asked how the replacement trustee would be chosen. The trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum, as noble Lords know, are appointed by the Prime Minister. The Government pay close attention to the needs and wishes of the museums in making trustee appointments.

I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, is absent, and it is to him that I address the last word in answer to his question. I can only emphasise what my right honourable friend has said in another place. Her Majesty's Government have every confidence in the director and trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum and fully support their objectives in restructuring the museum.

Lord Hutchinson of Lullington

My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, could she answer the question I put to her? It concerned the total sum that the redundancies have cost the Government and the figure which I mentioned and which has been mentioned publicly of £1.75 million. Is that correct or not?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I do not think it would be very productive for me to go into those details so late at night. I shall therefore write to the noble Lord.

Lord Armstrong of Ilminster

My Lords, if I may intervene, the figure is not familiar to me but I think it includes all costs after the normal age of retirement, if it is a real figure. If that is the case, of course those costs would be incurred anyway; these are the pensions that would be payable anyway after the age of 60. I do not think they come into the calculation of the cost of early retirement.

House adjourned at one minute before eleven o'clock.