TAITMAIL The years of the museum
There were multiple commemorations at the BM the other night when Art Fund handed out the Museum of the Year award for 2023 and, for the first time in years, the favourite actually won. It’s the Burrell Collection, having beaten the Natural History Museum, Leighton House in London, the MAC in Belfast and Orkney’s Scapa Flow Museum to the main prize.
We were celebrating 120 years since Art Fund, once the National Art-Collections Fund (the hyphen was vital), began supporting the arts; ten years since the fund created the latest manifestation of the award; 40 since the opening of the winner; and 50 since the charity National Heritage began the whole thing.
It’s also 38 years since the Burrell Collection was Museum of the Year last time round, just two years after it opened.
National Heritage - the Museums Action Movement, to give it its full title, was set up by a group of friends including Lord Montague of Beaulieu of motor museum fame, the publisher John Letts and the historian Kenneth Hudson to represent the interest of museum users.
“Why can’t we sit in a comfy armchair, drink coffee and chat while we look at art?” Hudson was inclined to ask. “Why do we have to treat a visit to the museum as if it were a sepulchre where you have to stand in silence and awe?”
The Museum of the Year Award was founded to recognise museums’ attention to and care for their visitors, and the first winner was the Museum of Lakeland Life and Industry in Kendal, Cumbria. No cash award went to the winners, just the kudos of national recognition, and a trophy, Elisabeth Frink’s Easter Head, generously donated by the artist. But there was publicity for the short-listed museums who got TV coverage in the BBC Omnibus slot in its first dozen or so years.
Hudson, who died in 1999, effectively invented industrial archaeology and saw the award as part of his crusade to democratise museums - he got an OBE for his efforts but was too busy to go and get it. He wanted museums and galleries to lurch away from being the elitist temples enjoyed and run by the middle classes, created in a patrician age, and whose collections were no concern of 90% of the population, who nevertheless have an equal right to our national history. His heart would be warmed by this year’s shortlist, and now National Heritage has decided it has run its course and closes having made a significant bursary scheme to help the Art Fund train young curators.
In the early noughties, though, it became clear that with several museum prizes having sprung up there needed to be a focus, and a substantial money prize that would be attractive to lure the biggest as well as the smallest museums to apply, so a trust made up from a range of museum representative organisations was formed and a proposal was put together which was eventually accepted by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, so that from 2003 to 2007 it was the Gulbenkian Prize with a purse of £100,000. Gulbenkian had had enough after three years, and in 2007 Art Fund stepped in to make the Art Fund Prize which transmuted in 2013 into the Art Fund Museum of the Year.
The Burrell itself has had a colourful history. It was a totally eclectic collection amassed by a Glaswegian shipping magnate called William Burrell (1861-1958), and amassed is the right word: it had more than 8,000 objects by the time it came into the city’s possession. He was also a long-serving local councillor and a trustee of the National Galleries of Scotland, and he left his whole treasure holding to his native city, valued in 1944 at more than £1m.
Burrell died in in 1958 leaving the city with an immense headache: where to put the Burrell Collection, a conundrum not made easy by his stipulation that it should be housed in a “distinct and separated building” not more than 16 miles from Glasgow Royal Exchange. Eventually the council acquired Pollok Country Park which satisfied Burrell’s location conditions, but it was more than 20 years before it was finally decided to build a museum there for Burrell’s compendium of art and applied art. Designed by Barry Gasson, it cost £21m.
Another awkward oddity about Burrell’s will (made in 1944, remember) is that it decreed that none of the collection should ever be loaned overseas, denying a possible major earning opportunity, for fear the ship carrying the treasure would be attacked by u-boats, and it took a mighty battle in the 1990s between the one-time director of museums for Glasgow, Julian Spalding, and the council before the anomaly was cancelled.
But the building became inadequate for its collections and its visitors, and a new design was commissioned from John McAslan and Partners. In the new £68.25m museum – costing three times what its predecessor did - that opened in March last year they have increased the gallery space by 35% , with 225 displays spread among 24 galleries, including video walls, interactives and hybrid systems to help visitors get behind the collections. The new nakedness of museums’ working is in tune with Hudson’s dreams of democratisation, and the Burrell has a new central staircase allowing visitors to see curators working on the objects. “Let us consider” Glasgow’s first director of museums, James Eggleton, in 1936, “the essentials of externalities as well as internal design. One in keeping with the spirit of beauty which art, over the centuries has so nobly endeavoured to keep alive and to preserve for succeeding generations. An edifice in keeping with the chaste restraint of beauty and yet appealing to the majesty of man’s conceptions over the ages”. Does the new Burrell fulfil those ambitions of nearly 90 years ago?
Well, there’s nothing so democratising as large amounts of money, as Chris Smith, the former culture secretary and now Art Fund’s chair, observed as he counted off what winners can expect: first, there’s £180,000 prize money in total – £120,000 for the winner, and £15,000 for each of the other finalists – “funds which are always welcome to any cultural organisation”; finalists can expect to see a huge boost in their profile through the national media attention, partnerships and social media buzz which is generated by the campaign, “and we know this leads to a surge in visitors"; meanwhile, new connections are created, and more funding can often magically be unlocked.
In the post-Covid, post-lockdown, cost of living crisis present too many museums and galleries are facing new limitations and even closures as their Ars Council and local authority funding is cut, sponsorship sources dry up with the oil supply, and philanthropists become less open-handed. “…this is a night of celebrating achievement” Lord Smith said “but this prize can also be used to show the very real challenges faced by museums right now, not least the funding disparity between our nations, and the situation of local authorities and the organisations they fund”. So while some terrific museums will sigh at the sight of the Art Fund winners triumphalism, Together we are committed to… help build a resilient, independent and thriving museum and gallery sector that is stronger and more relevant than ever.”