Tristram Hunt presents coverage of the Museum of the Year Award 2017 and visits the finalists, which include London's Tate Modern and the Hepworth Wakefield.
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What do Birmingham's hidden gem,
a temple for contemporary art,
a shrine to horse racing,
an altar to 20th-century sculpture,
and a Victorian cabinet of curiosities have in common?
They've all been nominated for the Art Fund's Museum of the Year Award 2017.
This summer, a team of judges have been hightailing
it across the country to see which of these five fine
institutions will be crowned the winner of the £100,000 prize.
From interactive exhibits to stores of deep learning,
these five remarkable museums really showcase how innovative
and productive the sector is,
but against the backdrop of soaring visitor numbers
and a decline in public funding, 2017's record number of applications
for the prize shows just how tight the competition will be.
I have also been visiting each of the nominees over the past
few weeks, to discover what makes them
stand out in this thriving cultural landscape.
This is the Museum of the Year Award 2017.
The last six months have been quite an upheaval for me.
After almost seven years as a Labour Member of Parliament, I stood
down from Westminster in January to take on a new challenge,
as director of the V&A Museum in the heart of London.
Though I may appear to have swapped one grand Victorian
institution for another by leaving the House of Commons,
this museum is focused on the future.
With over a century and a half of pioneering work
already behind it, the V&A is committed to championing design
and nurturing the next generation of artists and innovators.
The V&A won the Museum of the Year prize in 2016, following a stunning
run of exhibitions, culminating in its Alexander McQueen show.
This summer we start a new chapter, as we open up a courtyard
and gallery on Exhibition Road,
putting the V&A back at the heart of Albertopolis.
My hope is that the V&A's Exhibition Road Quarter proves to be
the most striking piazza to open in the UK for a generation.
The V&A has allocated its winning prize-money on piloting
an education programme to supercharge skills in art and
design, but as we get ready to hand over the mantle of Museum of the
Year to one of the 2017 nominees, let's go and meet the finalists.
Jockeying for position is the National Heritage
Centre for Horse Racing & Sporting Art in Newmarket,
home of the famous racecourse.
Does it have what it takes to go the extra mile in this hotly
Last year, the museum reopened after a decade-long restoration project.
We're in Palace House, which was built in the late 17th century
for King Charles II to come up to Newmarket to see his horses.
And the museum has put on some of the great works of British
art depicting sporting pastimes, and my favourite
is on loan from the Victoria & Albert Museum which is this 18th-century
screen showing all of the multiple layers of British sporting
pastimes, from card-playing to cockfighting,
to fox hunting, to horse racing, to shooting, to angling,
and it shows just what an important part sport played to British
culture and British identity during the 18th century.
And that's at the heart of what this museum celebrates.
The collection here straddles both old and new,
including a piece by the Turner prize winner Mark Wallinger.
I think art and sport feed us in ways that are rather similar,
and they tend to be seen as a sort of dichotomy.
As a sporting fan, not just of racing,
but of other sports as well, there's a spectacle, there is
a kind of emotional fulfilment, there's an anaesthetic.
I think sport and art are very, very much linked.
And I think uniquely this museum opens up onto that.
The museum is much more than just a collection of artworks though.
It even provides unexpected insight into the jockey's skill.
Straight legs, and bring this bit, just, that's it, you're going to...
-You're going to pretend look through Legless's ears.
-Not as easy as it looks!
-Not if you're six foot three either!
-Are you ready?
No! HE LAUGHS
-Okey dokey, the winning post is in front of you.
Oh, well done.
Oh! HE LAUGHS
So, how did this great venture come about?
I met with museum director Chris Garibaldi to find out more.
This is the incredible thing about this museum.
It's this mix of fine art, of science, and then livestock.
It seems focused both on those who are passionate about horse racing
and those who don't really know the sport at all.
Absolutely, and I think that's one of the main things that we're
trying to do is say, you know, if you're a complete racing nut,
for want of another expression,
you'll find things that you didn't know about the sport,
but actually if you don't know one end of a horse from another,
you don't think you're interested in horse racing, you might even think you're not interested definitely,
you'll find an extraordinary layering of culture that sits behind the sport.
And also the combination of sporting art generally,
this is a gallery of the art of all sport, not just horse racing,
so it's horse racing in context.
What we've also got here is an incredible gem in the heart of Newmarket,
just off a very busy high street with normal traditional
high-street shops, and you just wouldn't know,
if you stepped step back, what you've managed to create here.
Give us a sense of the regeneration that you've brought to this land.
It's about totally recasting Newmarket's tourist offer so that,
you know, apart from anything else, in the past you could come to
Newmarket after 12 o'clock, you wouldn't have seen a racehorse.
Now that's crazy. There's 3,000 of them in the town.
So this is to open the doors.
You know, those horses are behind closed doors for a reason.
-They are multi-million pound assets.
They have to be treated very, very carefully.
Trainers can't have the public trampling through all the time,
but we can give that kind of open access, as they come and see these, they're beautiful animals.
Perhaps the magic that really marks Newmarket out from the rest
is the presence of live racehorses as part of the museum.
Joe, we've seen some of the art in this museum,
but this is such a living, dynamic museum, and one of its purposes
is giving horses, previously jumping horses, racehorses, a second career.
Tell us something about the purpose of that.
-What we're about is asking a horse what it's able to do.
And then finding the right future for it.
And if they don't perform in an arena, you can
look at taking them out for team chasing or endurance riding,
and if they do perform in an arena, you can
look at dressage and showjumping, and there's always eventing,
so there are so many options for them to move on to.
And the museum's sort of a tribute to the thoroughbreds,
so having the thoroughbred here is very special.
And we get people coming in who haven't been
within 100 yards of a horse, and they can get up close to
these fabulous horses, and they're very sensitive, these horses.
-They can sense how bold they can be with the visitors.
And it's a joy to watch.
Another museum which has impressed the punters these
past 12 months, albeit without the aid of on-site horses,
is the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield.
As part of the Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle,
with the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds and Sculpture Park nearby, the
Hepworth has helped in regenerating a neglected corner of the city.
It's not just the interiors which are full of delights
at the Hepworth Gallery.
The building too is a really spectacular
intervention by the architect David Chipperfield.
As the largest purpose-built gallery in the country for 50 years,
it's spearheading the regeneration of this part of Wakefield.
The gallery plays host to some of the most exciting
exhibitions in the country, including a spectacular show earlier
this year called Disobedient Bodies,
curated by the fashion industry wunderkind JW Anderson.
I was kind of looking at this idea that, you know,
disobedient as a word, and which designers and sculptors had,
kind of, used the body in their period or in context,
and changed the way in which we perceive it,
the way in which we look at it, and the way in which, you know,
from over the last hundred years and how we have reinterpreted it,
both in clothing, in ceramics, or dance, and in a way in which,
in their period, they were kind of disobedient to the norm.
I wanted this show to be the best show that was never in London.
So I'm glad it's here.
Now, sometimes fashion can seem quite a distant
and austere subject to deal with, and yet here we're
surrounded with these wonderful, tactile, super-long jumpers.
And I know that some of the school groups from Wakefield have really enjoyed coming in here.
Tell us about some of the education work going on?
We've been working really closely with Wakefield schools.
We have, generally, the public really love to get involved,
so there's always a weird thing with fashion that people just
want to touch it, it's very tactile,
so this is really about encouraging people to get into the jumpers,
get dressed up in them and have an opportunity to actually
experience the garments in a different way.
-So, these can be ties, these can be scarves?
We've also run life drawing for a local college,
where we had dancers moving and using the garments
and people drawing from that so it's been amazing to have this
kind of participatory element to an exhibition and
it's really unusual and we have taken full advantage of that.
Despite specialising in the vanguard of contemporary art,
much of the gallery's space is dedicated to its
namesake - Barbara Hepworth, a giant of 20th-century sculpture.
Simon, how important is it to be celebrating here
in the Barbara Hepworth Gallery...
..an artist who came from Wakefield and whose connections to
Yorkshire, the architecture, the place, are
so important to her work?
I think it's crucial that you can see Hepworth's work
in the county that was so important to her development as
an artist - this relationship between the urban
environment - Wakefield, where she grew up...
And the amazing countryside around us. I think that was a
huge part of her development as an artist.
And obviously being here where you see many of the tools
that she used to create her work, is a really interesting
opportunity to understand about the physical making,
that relationship between mind and body, eye and the hand,
you get this sense of the made-ness, the physical stuff
that was so important to her as a sculptor.
And how do visitors respond to seeing the bench,
the chisel, the artefacts just almost ready to touch,
to take back up and work again?
I think that's exactly right, it is that feel that should never
She was a highly political, highly intellectual artist
but actually what matters most, this sort of embodied
spirituality in the work, which is so much about tuning in
to the materials that meant so much to her
but also the tools that meant so much to her.
I mean, physically how did she do this?
And this gallery does give a very clear sense of the importance
The biggest development for the gallery in the
past 12 months, was the launching of the biennial Hepworth Prize,
a £30,000 award for the best sculptor based in Britain.
Last year, Helen Marten won, before going on to win
the Turner Prize. Has that generated new enthusiasm
-around the discipline?
-I think it did.
The numbers speak for themselves. It was one of the most popular
shows we've ever put on. But the level of debate, you know,
from schoolkids through to lifelong learners,
was absolutely fantastic, so it made sculpture a
really live topic of debate, created a great buzz
and I think, you know, Hepworth would have been delighted
with us coming up with something so inventive, to extend her legacy.
The hidden gem on this year's short list
has to be the Lapworth Museum of Geology at Birmingham University.
After decades as an institution catering mainly to
professional palaeontologists and academics,
the Lapworth reopened last year with a much more
One of the really elegant innovations that
the revamp of the Lapworth has allowed is this
sensory rock wall, which allows you to feel
the difference between the igneous rock and the sedimentary rock.
Now, as a historian, I should probably know
the difference between the two but it's always good to get
a refresher course.
Some of these specimens are millions of years old.
By allowing people to get up close and personal
with these rocks, a visit to the Lapworth provides
an unrivalled opportunity to get to grips
with the history of our planet.
Much of the work behind the redevelopment
was carried out by a loyal army of volunteers,
including the veteran quartz cleaner, Margaret.
So, Margaret, how long have you been working on these minerals?
So, I've been coming to Lapworth lectures for at least 25 years.
And so, when they got the Lottery money,
-I decided it was payback time.
And that I would actually volunteer to do some work,
so I got the relevant training and...
-..took it from there.
-Right, so what happens next?
-You've dusted it...
-I've dusted it, so I now start...
..seeing what comes off.
What was the biggest mineral you did? Is this a normal-size one
-or is this...?
-Oh, I have done bigger ones than this...
And then having gone to all those lectures and now working
on it, do you reflect on what you learnt in the lectures?
I would come away from lectures thinking that I hadn't
-really understood it.
-But if you do this for 25 years...
you gradually pick things up.
-It's beginning to shine, isn't it?
Margaret, the case upstairs is full of the most
beautifully glistening, cleaned minerals.
How many of those were you responsible for?
Well, as far as I know I was responsible for all of them.
That's quite an achievement.
-Yeah, well, you've just got to stick at it, haven't you?
-If you know the job's got to be done...
-..you do it.
As part of its extraordinary collection,
the Lapworth holds some of the most important specimens
of fossils in the world, including a not-so-humble beetle
Now, one of the crown jewels of this collection is sitting here,
which is known as the Dudley Bug. Tell us about the Dudley Bug.
OK, so the Dudley Bug is a trilobite.
Trilobites were woodlice-like marine animals
that lived on the bottom of the ocean floor.
This one was living around 428 million years ago.
And this particular fossil comes from Dudley,
so just to the west of here, which is why it's
known as the Dudley Bug. It's particularly famous
in the local area, it once featured on the Dudley coat of arms.
And this particular specimen is actually the holotype specimen,
so the holotype is the specimen on which
-the species was originally scientifically defined.
-The Dudley Bug, it's a star.
-It's a fantastic object, yeah.
The remarkable success of the redevelopment
has been down to the tireless work of the Lapworth's director.
How do you marry that balance between the demands
of incredibly sophisticated serious scholarship
for a university audience and the kids we saw running around today,
sticking their noses up against the glass panels,
trying to understand about dinosaurs?
I think one of the great things is that actually a lot of the
academics are just... And research students and a lot
of them who are helping us out, are really keen to do public
engagement and they want to get their research
and what they are doing, across to the public
in an engaging way. I think the way our audience has changed,
the way the public, the community has embraced the museum
since it's reopened, clearly shows that it can do both
and it can be very welcoming
-and engaging for the public.
-And they've also embraced
this idea which the judges pointed to, that
the great achievement of your curators, your educational team,
is making rocks sexy! So this is a really attractive...
It's a visually engaging... It's an exciting place
dealing with sedimentary, igneous rocks.
And I think we have tried to do that using modern technology
in what is an old museum, but trying to retain its history.
It is about bringing that science to life,
so we've done animations, very high-quality animations.
All sorts of modern, cutting-edge sort of work,
to bringing those to life and bringing the stories to life.
The biggest story in the museum world this year has to be
the opening of the £260 million Blavatnik building
at Tate Modern. Already one of the most popular attractions
in the country, this ten-storey extension heralded
a 25% surge in visitor numbers to almost six million,
placing it just behind the British Museum and National Gallery.
What is it about contemporary art that keeps drawing in
Did you enjoy your visit? Was it the space of it?
Was it the art? What did you like?
Fantastic, I love the new building, the space is really creative,
it makes you look in different angles and different ways.
I just love the space and the unexpectedness of turning a
corner, not quite sure what you're going to see!
Or feel about it, either.
I specially came to see the building.
I think a lot of people just think, "Oh, it's a nice building."
But actually to go inside is pretty incredible.
I always just come back to see Monet.
Pablo Picasso and Dali.
Alongside the new building, the permanent collection underwent a
substantial re-hanging, with a determined focus on female and
Latin American artists. Much of this is down to the vision
of Tate Modern's director, Frances Morris,
who took up her post last year.
Frances, it's one year since the Blavatnik building opened
and since then Tate Modern has become the third-most popular
visitor attraction in the UK. Are you surprised by this success
or did you see it coming?
Well, we were doing pretty well before we opened
the new Tate Modern with the Blavatnik building
but we did want to expand what we do and we did want to respond
to the changing dynamic of art and the changing needs of the audience,
so the fact that we have grown our audience since then is
very gratifying and I think it's partly a result
of the fact that this building is really about,
the way art can be activated by the audience.
So, how does the Blavatnik Building work with the
sort of Original Tate Modern space in terms of
the Turbine Hall?
Well, it connects at three levels, so there's great
people traffic between the Boiler House, the Turbine Hall,
The Tanks, which is the base of this building,
and then the floors above it, where we have galleries.
And the significant shift is that this new building
and these new galleries really focus on art since 1960.
So that moment in the world when artists began making
really, kind of, invasive, spatially intense sculptures
that engage with the visitor in a different way.
And that in turn then has...
..encouraged audiences to feel a desire to participate,
to get more actively involved as audiences
but also as makers.
One of the really special things about having this
new building was that we've been able to build in
live art into the collection and that's pretty much a first,
I think, for any museum.
There is a lot of money around contemporary art,
around the art fairs, yet we also know
that we have to do a lot to make sure that there's capacity
-for artists to grow, particularly in a expensive city...
..like London. How do you create that kind of artistic dynamic
of the future?
What is your role as an incubator for future talent?
We are an incubator writ large, we're a safe place to take risks
both in the Turbine Hall and in Tate Exchange
but one of the things that in a global city like London,
where property prices and real estate are squeezing provision
for artists right across the piece...
I think our network of support across the regions
in the UK is incredibly important for nurturing talent.
I've just been to Leeds and met a wonderful group
of young artists who are absolutely flourishing in Leeds
and I know the same thing is happening in Manchester
and Birmingham and Glasgow and Bristol and so on.
And actually it's really important that Tate isn't just about
London, Tate Modern is part of this regional network
of galleries and I think it's supporting those galleries
and those... Germinating talent, incubators in those places
that's just as important as nurturing it here.
You once said, I remember, that the point of a gallery
or a museum is to be a safe space for unsafe ideas.
-That's right, absolutely.
-Is that still...?
-That's still the ambition?
Yeah, yeah, yeah...
Take a risk and it's a fun thing to do at Tate Modern.
In order to determine the ultimate winner of
the Museum of The Year award, each year the Art Fund
appoints five judges whose task it is to travel up and down
the country to inspect each of the five nominees for themselves.
These are, really, the best in class because they
know their objects so well and they know their work so well
that they know how to explain it to people who are, most of us,
including the judges, are not experts.
It's like the Mercury music prize, all you can do...
You are trying to compare fantastic places...
And it's really, really hard to choose the ultimate one
but if you can make people aware that there is something great going
on and you can get people through the door,
then I think our work is done.
Today it's the turn of Sir John Soane's Museum in London,
to host the jury.
The museum is no stranger to competitions, though,
including one gauntlet which I have particularly
fond memories of. One of the many gems inside
Sir John Soane's Museum is the Picture Room
at the heart of it sits the work of Hogarth
and here is a particular favourite for me -
his election cycle. Now, here you see some pretty good
old-fashioned 18th-century politicking at work.
Bribing the voters with oysters and gin.
Very different to the kind of Labour Party fundraisers that I used
to be involved with.
Not nearly so exciting or full of drama. But there are some
rich characters within this, who...
I can certainly see echoes of the Parliamentary Labour Party.
And then as it proceeds, the... Shall we say...
The gentle encouragement through financial reward,
of voting... And then a sort of sense of patriotic pride
about what general elections should be about.
We've got the lion eating a symbol of France.
As ever with Hogarth, it's just so rich with history,
with satire, with cynicism
and a sense of what politics is about.
This set of paintings, like the vast majority of the
rest of the collection here, was acquired by the architect
Sir John Soane in the 19th century.
Because of the extraordinary amount of curios he collected
in his lifetime, he planned for his home and collection
to be made available to the public after his death.
For the past 180 years, this house has welcomed visitors
curious about Soane's life and tastes.
Though the museum regularly hosts works from contemporary artists,
like Sarah Lucas, or their current exhibition by Marc Quinn,
it has long prided itself on how it preserves
the house in the same conditions in which Soane himself lived.
The last seven years have seen the museum undergo an extensive
restoration project, to ensure it's indistinguishable
today from what Soane would have seen.
Bruce, 2016 was a fantastic year for the Sir John Soane's Museum,
the culmination of a seven-year restoration project
across this remarkable townhouse in the middle of London...
The staff here must be delighted with the
transformation of this institution?
Yes, we all are, in fact it's more than seven years,
it's really 30 years
because it started in the middle of the 1980s.
It was the beginning of this rethinking of how
can we bring the Soane back as nearly as possible
to the way it was in Soane's day, when he died in 1837.
Because we think of the Soane as like a fly in amber
but in fact it's changed constantly in its 180-year career.
And is there something very specific about a museum
focused on the vision of an individual man of
world-historic importance? You're wrestling with the
legacy of an individual, his meaning,
and then also the particularities of a house and the
nature of a home, even the apartment where he would live...
Yes, it's a good question. It always has to be a balance.
But fortunately, Soane, believed very much in contemporary art.
When he was building his collection, he invested
not only in antiquities, but also in contemporary
British art and he wanted his collection,
both the ancient and the modern, to serve as an inspiration
for future generations of architects, artists,
designers and the general public.
Tell us something about the Marc Quinn installations,
those are very dramatic pieces, which on the one hand
feel, arguably quite jarring within that environment,
and yet they seem to blend so well.
They are, essentially, variations on the embrace.
You have two bodies, the body of the dancer, who is his muse,
and then the sculptor's own arms embracing her.
So it has echoes of classical sculptures
of abduction, of Bernini.
The whole concept of the fragment really fits in to the museum.
And also, in different rooms with different works of art,
they take on a different aspect.
So that's it for this year. The votes have been cast
and all the nominees have gathered at the British Museum,
to find out who the winner is going to be.
The winner of the Art Fund's Museum of the Year 2017 is...
..The Hepworth Wakefield.
I'm not going to speak, except to say this is all down
to these people here. Most particularly, their leader,
Simon Wallis! Simon!
A huge congratulations to The Hepworth Wakefield,
for winning Museum of the Year 2017.
To play us out, we have a selection of highlights from
their collection. Enjoy...
Join Tristram Hunt for coverage of the Art Fund Museum of the Year Award 2017. As the newly appointed director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, winner of last year's award, Tristram has to prove his mettle running such a large institution, with tips and advice garnered from his visits to the 2017 finalists - London's Tate Modern and Sir John Soane's Museum, the Lapworth Museum of Geology in Birmingham, the Hepworth Wakefield and the National Heritage Centre for Horseracing and Sporting Art in Newmarket.
This year's list of nominees showcases yet again the extraordinary range of museums across the UK, with temples to science, history, sculpture and modern art all making the cut. By visiting them each in turn ahead of the announcement of the winner, Tristram learns just how the sector is in such fine fettle this year.