Dutch museum scoops the top prize at the Emya awards

Roland Lloyd Parry, Issue 105/6, p11, June 2005
The 28th European Museum of the Year Award was awarded to the National Heritage Museum in Arnhem, the Netherlands, at a ceremony in Brussels last month. The winner - an open-air museum founded in 1912 - was picked from a shortlist of museums from 16 countries for its innovative approach to social issues and difficult aspects of the Netherlands' modern history.

'It was very exciting. We wanted to win, but it was still a surprise,' Adelheid Ponsioen, the museum's deputy director, told Museums Journal. 'Our museum has existed for more than 90 years, but one of the reasons we won is that we are innovative,' she added. 'The judges told us we won because we reinvent and renew ourselves.'

She said the museum had been swamped with media coverage, which helped to generate an influx of 18,000 visitors over the week following the news of the award. Among the recent exhibitions at the museum were one on a 1929 Luddite farmers' strike and a reconstruction of an army barracks for soldiers from the Moluccas islands, that dealt with the legacy of Netherlands' controversial colonial history in south-east Asia.

The museum's director, Jan Vaessen, accepted the award from Queen Fabiola of Belgium, patron of the European Museum Forum (EMF), which organises the awards, following a speech by the EMF's chairman, Neil Cossons.

'Good quality multimedia presentations and numerous activities for people of all ages add to the package provided,' the judges said in their notes, concluding that the National Heritage Museum set 'an excellent example for other traditional museums wishing to take new directions and combine traditional forms of open-air museum with innovative, experimental and imaginative projects, focusing on contemporary social issues'.

The Council of Europe Award 2005, presented in April in Strasbourg, went to the Museum of Byzantine Culture in Thessaloniki, Greece. The museum was described as 'a tribute to public sector funding', with an excellent 'balance between conservation, restoration and presentation' and a virtual absence of showcases.

The Micheletti award for the most promising technical or industrial museum went to Onlus, the City of Science, in Naples. The judges praised the social benefits of its facilities and projects on the region.

Specially commended among the other Emya candidates were: the Museum of Industrial History, Chemnitz, Germany; the Fishing Museum, Palamos, Spain; and the Molndal Museum, Molndal, Sweden.

The judges noted 'increasingly imaginative use being made of open storage' in the candidate museums. They highlighted the radical approach (which divided the judges) at the Historical Museum in Lucerne, Switzerland, where visitors explore open storage areas with the help of palm scanners and guided tours by actors in character.
The British museums in competition were the Big Pit: National Mining Museum of Wales, Blaenafon; Chertsey Museum; Discovery Museum, Newcastle upon Tyne; and, in London, the Ben Uri Gallery, the Museum in Docklands, and the Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon.

Germany had a strong showing, with ten museums in the competition. The judges particularly welcomed the entries from museums in Hungary and Croatia.