Committee of Public Accounts: Press Notice

3rd PAC Report 2006-07

Collections Management in the National Museums and Galleries of Northern Ireland

Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, today 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 (MAGNI) has, over a long period of time, not addressed its responsibilities; storage is inadequate, record keeping fails to meet recognized and acceptable standards, and computerization of records has, despite previous undertakings, yet to be fully implemented.

“The Department of Culture and Leisure’s (DCAL) oversight of MAGNI has also been deficient. 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 recognize the risk of damage or loss to the collection in their Statements of Internal Control. This fundamental omission is symptomatic of profound deficiencies in custodianship.

“Continuing to operate with 60 per cent of storage space in either a “poor” or “unacceptable” condition is simply not good enough. We welcome the recent provision of additional funding and preparation of a storage development plan.

 However, MAGNI needs to rationalize its collections. Retaining and conserving artefacts in perpetuity without any possibility of display or access to them, benefits no-one. But it does cost the taxpayer. Museums need to recognise that a rigid presumption against disposal is not real world thinking. MAGNI also needs to consider carefully the full costs associated with acquisitions. The case study of “The Result” is an astonishing example of a public body’s failure to apply the well established principles of economic appraisal. Preserving our heritage is important but not at any cost.

“Both MAGNI and DCAL need to rise to the challenges in this report if they are to become more effective custodians of Northern Ireland’s national collection.”

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 3rd Report of this Session, which examined MAGNI’s development, management, care and interpretation of Northern Ireland’s national collection.

Two previous reports by the Comptroller and Auditor General highlighted numerous and long-running failings in the management, documentation and computerisation of the collection’s records and its storage. Despite these warnings and recommendations for improvement, MAGNI is still 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.

To enhance records management, MAGNI introduced, in 2005, a new computer network linking its four sites. This provides the potential for all authorised staff to access a common collections management database that had originally been acquired by the Ulster Museum. However, while the IT infrastructure is in place, and computerisation of collection records is well advanced in three of the four MAGNI sites, less than 10 per cent of the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum’s records have been computerized. This is despite previous recommendations, some going back 17 years, by the Comptroller and Auditor General. The lack of progress is an indictment of management at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum and has undoubtedly hindered academic and public access to information about this unique part of the national collection.

The Department has allocated some £3.2 million to address problems identified by a Buildings Survey of MAGNI Stores carried out in June 2004. MAGNI is also planning a major review of its long-term storage requirements to protect the national collection and make it more accessible. In the meantime it is embarking on a major capital works programme at the Ulster Museum, which will necessitate decanting its collections for up to four years. Unfortunately, MAGNI has not aligned the availability of proposed new storage facilities to the commencement of these works.

The Department’s governance and oversight of MAGNI was found to be deficient; it failed to establish, as part of its funding arrangements, meaningful performance measures. For example, in contrast to the position in England, no measures were put in place for assessing the storage of the national collection or for increasing accessibility to it via the internet.

Notes for Editors

1.Contact details for requests for further comment from Mr Edward Leigh are provided below. ISDN facilities are available for broadcasting purposes.

2.The full text of the Report is attached to this press notice.

3.This report can be accessed via the internet from around 00.01 am on the day of publication.

All media enquiries to:

Luke Robinson, Select Committee Media Officer
Tel: 020 7219 5693
Mobile: 07917 488549