“symptomatic of profound deficiencies in custodianship.”

The BBC reports on the latest in a long line of Public Accounts Committee reports critical of the department level adminstration here. This time it’s the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure who, along with the Museums and Galleries of NI [MAGNI], have been severely criticised, just as they begin a redevelopment of the Ulster Museum – “The Department’s governance and oversight of MAGNI was found to be deficient” and, despite two previous reports by the Comptroller and Auditor General

MAGNI is unable to confirm the extent to which the national collection has been documented to the national and internationally recognized SPECTRUM standard; it has no performance measure for documentation nor has the Department sought to have put such a measure in place. Moreover, contrary to MAGNI’s own policy, annual management “audits” of the collection have been sporadic, ineffective and in two sites, non-existent.

From the online PAC report – full report also available as pdf file.

Conclusions and Recommendations

1. The proper management and security of Northern Ireland’s national collection requires the maintenance of complete, accurate and up to date records that comply with accepted standards. We were therefore disappointed to learn that MAGNI was only able to confirm that those artefacts acquired since 1994 have been documented to the nationally and internationally recognised standard (SPECTRUM). Its failure to have any documentation for 87,000 artefacts, or 6% of its collection is of particular concern. We expect MAGNI to give priority to improving this position.

2. The response to previous recommendations arising from Audit Office Reports has been totally inadequate. In the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, despite previous NIAO recommendations (1989 and 1998) to computerise its records, and commitments by the museum to comply, only 10% of its collection’s records have been computerised. Northern Ireland departments and the bodies they are responsible for, need to know that issues raised by the Comptroller and Auditor must be taken with the utmost seriousness. Failure to comply with recommendations arising from an audit report, or reneging on commitments given, without a clear and unambiguous reason, could lead to the Accounting Officer being called before this Committee to explain their inaction. We look to the Department of Finance and Personnel to make this particular message clear to all Northern Ireland Departments and their NDPBs.

3. We were surprised to learn that there is no reference to the risk of damage or loss of the national collection in MAGNI’s Statement of Internal Control. We consider the loss or damage of artefacts in the national collection to be one of the main risks to the achievement of MAGNI’s objectives and to its reputation. The Statement of Internal Control is an important facet of Corporate Governance providing an opportunity for an organisation to explain the scope of its responsibilities, the risk and control issues facing it, the framework of internal controls in place to address these and how its management board has reviewed the effectiveness of that framework.

4. We are not convinced by the assurances given to us that no artefacts had been lost or stolen over the last 14 years. It is not clear to us, particularly given the deficiencies in documentation and in the absence of annual “audit” checks, that MAGNI knows with any degree of certainty what assets it has, where they are, what their condition is or their value is. Until can demonstrate its collection is documented to SPECTRUM standards; that the condition of some of the stores (such as the Banbury Store at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum) is significantly improved; it conducts annual audit checks at each museum; and the collection records are fully computerised, we do not believe it is in a position to make such statements with any degree of confidence.

5. We expect all public bodies to have appropriate performance measures in place. We are therefore concerned that the Department has not introduced, as a condition of funding, measures to assess and encourage improvement in MAGNI’s performance in areas such as documentation, storage and accessibility. The introduction of such measures would facilitate both internal performance review (from one period to another), and external performance review (between similar organisations in the United Kingdom, Republic of Ireland and indeed world-wide) and encourage regular monitoring of progress and a programme of continuous improvement.

6. It is deplorable that up to 60% of the storage area available to MAGNI is in either a “poor” or “unacceptable” condition. While MAGNI claims that around 90% of the national collection is held in appropriate conditions, both the Department and MAGNI need to recognise that storage is crucial to its long-term management and preservation. To persist with this standard of facilities in a museum collection is folly; in the long-term this may lead to more being spent on conservation and restoration of the collection and replacement of artefacts; in many cases, this may not be a feasible option. Therefore the issues of both security and environmental conditions need to be tackled to prevent loss, theft or damage to the collection. In this respect, we were encouraged to hear that MAGNI is bringing forward a storage development plan and that the Department has made £13.5 million available over the next three years of which £2.5 million could be used to improve some of the buildings requiring attention and also to improve storage. However, as part of this exercise, MAGNI needs to carefully consider whether it will continue to retain such an extensive collection, as this is crucial to assessing future storage provision.

7. Disposal and acquisition of artefacts should be an integral part of collections management. With limited acquisition budgets opportunities to acquire new artefacts for the national collection are undoubtedly being missed. However, it does not make sense for MAGNI to keep spending public money on works which will never be seen or utilised, such as the rows of grandfather clocks highlighted in the C&AG’s Report. Making decisions about acquisitions and disposals is part of a museum’s professional and ethical responsibility. Disposals also offer the opportunity to generate income which can be reinvested for the benefit of the collection and future generations. We welcome the assurance from MAGNI that it will consider a more proactive disposals policy but recommend that it subjects its policy to public consultation. Indeed we would extend this recommendation to all such bodies throughout the UK.

8. All museums should seek to develop exhibitions which appeal to the widest cross section of the community. The ability of MAGNI to attract visitors from wide socio-economic backgrounds is laudable. This coupled with visitor satisfaction rates reflects very positively on MAGNI’s performance. MAGNI’s visitor figures, as a percentage of population, compare favourably with those of the National Museums of Scotland. However, there is clearly scope to enhance visitor numbers to the four MAGNI museums as they fall significantly short of those visiting the National Museums of Wales.

9. With regard to The Result we were astonished by the admission that, while a number of options had been explored for its future use, “the business case never stacked up“. The case study presented in the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report clearly demonstrates the importance of subjecting investment decisions to the well established principles of economic appraisal. Appraisal is not an option; it is always an essential part of good financial management and it is vital to decision-making and accountability. In the case of The Result, despite it being purchased 36 years ago and being one of 46 vessels compiling the UK’s core collection of historic vessels, it has never been fully restored. Instead, it remains under awning on dry land, albeit refurbished to a state that ensures that its long-term preservation remains as an option. Preserving our heritage is important but not at any cost.

10. The Department and MAGNI should carry out a comprehensive review of its estate to determine the potential for disposal of property which is not essential for its core functions. Given the challenges posed by MAGNI’s budget, particularly on capital spend, the conditions of its storage, and the aspirations for a National Gallery, we believe that it should consider the viability of disposing of part of, what is, a very valuable estate, with a view to reinvestment. In keeping with guidelines the level of income retention from any sale will be subject to negotiation with the Department of Finance and Personnel. In addition, any proposal for reinvestment must be supported by a robust business case which will be subject to review and approval, where necessary, by the both the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure and Department of Finance and Personnel.

The BBC report quotes the chairman of the PAC

Edward Leigh, MP, chairman of the committee, said: “Safeguarding Northern Ireland’s national collection is dependent on its proper management, development and security.

“It is evident, however, that Museums and Galleries of Northern Ireland has, over a long period of time, not addressed its responsibilities.

“Storage is inadequate, record keeping fails to meet recognised and acceptable standards and computerisation of records has, despite previous undertakings, yet to be fully implemented.”

He said the department’s oversight of the body was “deficient”, adding: “Meaningful performance measures have not been set to challenge its operation and encourage improvement.

To compound matters, DCAL and Magni, have failed, at a corporate level, to recognise the risk of damage or loss to the collection in their statements of internal control. [added emphasis]

“This fundamental omission is symptomatic of profound deficiencies in custodianship.”