Dust off the mantlepiece

Geraldine Kendall, 22.12.2014
Who's in the running for Museum of the Year 2015?
I recently went to a lunch hosted by the Art Fund to celebrate the launch of next year’s Museum of the Year prize. The much-coveted £100,000 award is now open for applications and that means it’s time to start betting on who will triumph at next July’s ceremony.

The award celebrates imagination, innovation and excellence in UK museums. In that respect it’s been a really interesting and exciting year for museums and galleries in the UK, in spite of reduced funding across the sector.

This year’s biggest event was of course the world war one centenary, the start of a monumental four-year anniversary programme that is really beginning to capture the public’s attention. With so many projects going on, museums have had to strive hard to find original, sensitive and innovative ways to interpret the subject matter and move the public’s perception of the conflict beyond well-worn tropes of muddy trenches and poppy fields.

The Imperial War Museum’s £40m redevelopment of its Lambeth site is one of the landmark projects of the centenary so far and has surely got to be a contender for the prize next year. There have been grumbles about a lack of interpretation, but for Museums Journal's reviewer the museum’s redesigned First World War Galleries succeeded in combining the war’s disparate stories into one coherent and compelling narrative.

Archaeology was well served this year too with the October opening of the £700,000 Staffordshire Hoard gallery at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (reviewed in Museums Journal next month), a permanent home worthy of the 4,000-strong collection of Anglo-Saxon treasures unearthed in 2010 by an amateur metal detectorist.

Likewise the new Wessex Gallery of Archaeology at Salisbury Museum, which showcases Wiltshire’s rich archaeological heritage, won plaudits from our reviewer for its object-rich displays and clear interpretation.

Just down the road is one of the most high profile new openings of the year, the £27m Stonehenge visitor centre, which displays a wealth of archaeological finds and, most importantly, is situated one and a half miles from the stones themselves, finally returning the ancient monument to its natural setting (if you can ignore the traffic that still rumbles past on the A303).

Many nationals had a good year too, with several big development projects coming to fruition. In London, the Wallace Collection has just unveiled its refurbished Great Gallery, a faithful restoration that aims to return the room for old masters to its former glory. Our reviewer also enjoyed the gallery’s new approach to interpretation, which means paintings are hung according to diplomatic ties rather than schools of art.

The Science Museum will no doubt throw itself into the mix with its new communications technology gallery Information Age, the first permanent exhibition to open at the museum for 13 years, while the British Museum’s new temporary exhibition space, which premiered to mixed reviews with its Vikings exhibition, might also be in with a shout.

Kenwood House, the English Heritage-managed stately home on Hampstead Heath, could be in the running too for its £5.95m restoration project, which has created a less museum-like, more homely feel for visitors.

It isn’t all about the big-hitters though; Bailiffgate Museum – Alnwick’s volunteer-run social history museum – won praise from our reviewer as a “fine example of the community setting up and running its own museum”; it’s a model worth highlighting as so many museums struggle to survive the cuts.

Meanwhile, technological innovation brings the wow factor to the £9.1m Battle of Bannockburn Visitor Centre in Stirling, Scotland.

Of course, a recent change in the rules means applicants don’t need to have launched a shiny new development to put themselves forward – last year’s winner, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, won for the quality of its overall offer.

The judging panel – which this year includes artist Michael Landy, critic and former Design Museum director Alice Rawsthorn and Axel Rüger, the director of Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum – will be looking for achievement in many different areas, from original outreach and learning programmes to exciting work in bringing collections to life for audiences.

Under these criteria, the range of museums that could be in with a chance to win next year’s prize is very wide indeed. Museum of the Year is a great way to demonstrate that the impact museums have on the public is worth far more than the investment they receive, and to celebrate the continuing imagination, professionalism and ambition of the sector.

There’s no doubt Museums Journal is going to be paying close attention to next year’s prize - let’s just hope politicians and policy-makers are too.

Museum of the Year 2015 is open for applications until 4 February 2015.

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