Renewed Financial Crisis at British Museum Raises Question of Blame ; ANALYSIS High-Profile Debacles Mask Huge Fall in Funding Levels

Article excerpt

SINCE A scathing report revealed six years ago that the British Museum did not employ a single accountant, a giant question mark has hovered over any discussion of its finances and governance.

And with the financial position deteriorating, the question of who is to blame will once again be asked.

The recent debacle over the museum's failure to spot that the wrong type of stone was used for the Great Court development makes it tempting to conclude that the management still has not got its eye on the ball.

Some museum observers suspect that the British Museum comes nowhere near the tight financial ship of, for example, the Tate.

But the fundamental problem remains that the British Museum has genuinely seen a fall in funding of about 30 per cent in real terms in the past decade. It has an annual budget of pounds 45m; pounds 36m comes from government grants and it must raise the difference itself.

Every museum and gallery is now accustomed to raising sponsorship for exhibitions and hauling in the benefactors for important developments. But it is also dependent on revenue from visitors.

And in the past year, the British Museum has experienced a surprise downturn in visitor numbers that has already cost it pounds 1m in lost income from the shops and cafe - money that had already been budgeted for.

Visitor numbers to the British Museum, in Bloomsbury, had hovered around the 5.5 million mark for years, but it was thought the dramatic new Great Court - covering the central courtyard with an extraordinary glass roof - would tip the total above 6 million.

But numbers slumped to 4.6 million, a fall also suffered by the Tower of London and other attractions popular with foreign tourists.

Bad publicity for Britain from the foot-and-mouth epidemic last year and fears of travelling after the terror attacks on America on 11 September were blamed. …