TAITMAIL Museums of serious fun

Art Fund has announced the shortlisted museums for the 2024 Museum of the Year award, the winner getting £120,000 and the runners-up £15,000 each. For four of the five it will be won by an institution unrecognisable as a museum by their founding fathers.

These are non-patrician places of joyous learning, not didactic education centres; places of activity, not austere libraries where silence is golden with objects to be worshipped rather than understood. They have become places where stories of humankind and the world they live in are told, people’s museums, and with this most valuable museum prize in the world Art Fund is helping to introduce people to their histories.

It is a remarkable transformation for an organisation whose official name is still the National Art-Collections Fund, invented more than a century ago to help galleries and museums acquire works of art. Under the dynamic leadership of first David Barrie, then Stephen Deuchar (knighted for his efforts) and now Jenny Waldman the NACF transmogrified first into The Art Fund, now pragmatically without the definitive article to Art Fund. It has built up an enormous membership in the last 20 years, and an abundant treasury to fund its missions, with its attention diverted to supporting curatorship and the Museum of the Year award while still being the first call fire brigade, as Barrie called it, to prevent art from leaving our public walls and halls.

“Each of our finalists truly has something for everyone and all have community at the very heart of their programming” Waldman said this week. “Their commitment to innovative partnerships whilst operating within an extremely challenging funding environment is incredible, and I'm so pleased to see the way they support and centre young people through their work. Across a wide range of size and scale, these organisations are all real leaders in their field. I urge everyone to go and visit these extremely special spaces". It’s a long way from the days when curators bemoaned the admission of the public into their galleries, disturbing their vital research.

They are the Manchester Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, Young V&A, Dundee Contemporary Arts and, perhaps the minnow in the group, the Craven Museum in Skipton. Sadly the National Museum Wales in Cardiff is not on the list - it could have done with the £120,000 to prevent the closure threatened by the Welsh government withdrawing all its subsidy.

“Community” is now the operative word, no longer “collection”. “It’s about how we care for people, ideas, beliefs and relationships” Esme Ward, the Manchester Museum’s director, told me. “Museums have extraordinary power to build understanding and empathy between cultures, across generations and time”.

In tune with the Arts Council’s near obsession with inclusion and diversity, museums have rethought their vocation. Craven, for instance, was set up as an independent museum nearly a century ago in a room in Skipton Town Hall by a group of amateur naturalists and archaeologists, and run by volunteers. Now run by the local authority, in a £4.7m redevelopment it’s taken over the whole of the town hall and is a “multi-arts cultural hub” with a concert hall as well as well as displays of archaeology, fine art, social history, textiles and a certificate declaring it 2023’s Best Accessible Museum in the Kids in Museums awards for its programmes of free activities, daily during school holidays.

Dundee Contemporary Arts has been an interface for audiences and contemporary arts for 25 years with exhibitions, films and a print studio. Last year it ventured south with a new contemporary arts festival, Art Night Dundee, across 35 sites around London.

The £41m transformation of the National Portrait Gallery perhaps got its boss the appointment as the next director of the British Museum. It’s got a bigger shop, brighter cafés, a brand new education centre, a new entrance, but it has also become an art museum which it wasn’t set up to be in 1896. Photography, female artists, prints, young artists now have a place in the new hangs as they didn’t before – 48% of the pictures on show now are of women, up from 35%, Black and ethnic minorities make up 11% (could do better) from a base of 3%. It is no longer a museum of images of the great and good, it’s a window on our contemporary world and where we came from.

Young V&A in London’s East End used to be the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood, a worthy historical sketch of childhood using the V&A’s stored collection of toys, dolls’ houses and costume. Its £13m regeneration is a complete rethink of what a museum for children should be, the visitor experience being the guiding light, a 180-degree turn from its founding mission, with its main galleries now designated as Play, Imagine and Design, “packed full of serious fun and playful learning at every turn” as its PR says. In the area for older children there are descriptions and demonstrations of creative processes – veneering, enamelling, marquetry, glazing and so on.

Manchester Museum is over 130 years old, houses about 4.5m objects from natural sciences and human cultures, and as part of Manchester University it’s always been a place for research and learning, and still is with its conservation work world-leading. All the public facilities have been upgraded, but under Esme Ward it has changed its gaze to look outwards, at the communities of Manchester and beyond in a £15m capital project titled “Hello Future”. “Inclusion and understanding” she says are now its watchwords, and since it reopened just over a year ago its visitor numbers have gone up 103%, and half of them have never been before.
Three of the five rely on either university or local authority support, and a scary number of cultural institutions are now under threat because of the financial straits councils in particular are now in. But this is a list of hope, of ingenuity, of determination, and of community – communities, because each of them is at pains to address every section of society it encounters.
And Esme Ward at the Manchester Museum has said it for all of them: “Our mission is to build understanding between cultures and a more sustainable world and we are driven by our values to be inclusive, imaginative and caring.  
“A commitment to inclusion means greater collaboration and co-production, and foregrounding diverse perspectives - becoming more relevant to the communities we serve. A commitment to imagination means engaging with innovative ideas and research, bringing people together to tell extraordinary stories and explore big questions. A commitment to care means caring for people, their ideas and relationships, as well as objects, so that we can take action to build understanding, empathy and love for our world and each other.” 

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