London Local Authority Museum wins Museum of the Year 2013

The William Morris Gallery, run by the London Borough of Waltham Forest, has pipped 9 other strong contenders to win the 2013 Art Fund Museum of the Year Prize, which comes with an award of £100,000.  The Hepworth Wakefield won the Clore Award for Learning, also administered by the Art Fund, along with an award of £10,000.

The prizes were announced by broadcaster and journalist Ian Hislop at a ceremony at the Victoria and Albert Museum on 4 June.  Hislop said of the winning museum that “William Morris is about artefacts”, stating that he was impressed by the support given by the local Council and the quality of the curatorship.  This was echoed by Stephen Deuchar, Director of the Art Fund and Chair of this year’s prize committee, who described the William Morris Gallery as having a strong “commitment to scholarship and community” and “immaculate” interpretation.  Both agreed that selecting one winner from such a diverse range of contenders was extraordinarily difficult.

William Morris Gallery staff member Rebecca Jacobs was overjoyed, saying that winning the prize “means the world”, and while she has been on staff for a relatively short time, she praised the efforts put in by her colleagues who worked towards the museum redevelopment for a number of years: “They deserve this”.  The Gallery benefited from a Heritage Lottery Fund grant to undertake a £5 million building refurbishment and overhaul of programming, reopening in 2012 with a high profile exhibition with contemporary artist Grayson Perry.

Dulwich Picture Gallery and the Horniman Museum, both independent museums in Southeast London, were also shortlisted.  Being nominated can make a big difference to local and national profile for museums; according to Camilla Hampshire, Museum Manager at 2012 Museum of the Year, the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, there was a strong upswing in media coverage and visitor numbers from the moment the shortlist was publicised, and even before the winners were announced.

The 2013 Museum of the Year Prize saw a number of departures from previous years’ structure.  The main selection criterion until this year was a significant project or redevelopment, but the Art Fund redefined criteria to include a broader range of fields of excellence.  This reflects the changing economic climate, which has caused major redevelopments to fall out of vogue to a certain extent, and to broaden access to the prize to all accredited museums and galleries who are working to a high standard across their public offer.  2013 is also the first year that the Museum of the Year and the Clore Prize for Learning shared the same set of 10 nominees.

In another change from previous years, the awards were broadcast for BBC Radio4’s “Front Row”, presented by John Wilson.  Technical difficulties meant that the actual presentation had to be done in under 30 seconds, greatly diminishing the scope of presentations normally given in the run up to the announcement.  This created mixed reactions, with some attendees pleased to have the suspense over and done with, while others, including representatives of a London museum nominated in a previous year who asked not to be named, felt that it somewhat shortchanged the efforts of nominees who do not ultimately win.

To hear the ceremony as broadcast on “Front Row”, click below: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0213yzr

Reported by Susan van Schalkwyk

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