Museum of the Year Awards: celebratory or contradictory?

08/07/2023

Elena Savvas (she/they) discusses this year’s shortlist for the Art Fund Museum of the Year awards and the nature of the award itself.

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Image by Creative Commons, creazilla.com.

By Elena Savvas

Art Fund, the UK’s national fundraising and preservation charity for art, released its Museum of the Year finalists this past week. This news has proven interesting for museum-lovers, and haters -  across the country, as many have taken to exploring and questioning the reasons for the entries in this year’s shortlist.
    Art Fund, previously the National Art Collections Fund, was founded in 1903 by various individuals who saw an issue in the lack of government funding for UK museums. Even today, the fund receives no contributions from the government or National Lottery, but is reliant on members’ donations and subscriptions. Its earliest roots can be traced to a lecture given by famous Victorian polymath John Ruskin in 1857, where he called for the creation of what he coined “a great society” to save and look after works of art. In the 1900s, the creation of the National Art Collections Fund was taken with much controversy, as their equalist approach wasn’t favoured by mainstream art critics that dedicated their time to measuring the merit of certain works, and whether or not they were worthy of time, money, and care. The new fund was revolutionary. With its inclusive politics, a few years after its formation, it helped to exhibit the first Impressionist painting in the National Gallery: Eugène Boudin's The Entrance to Trouville Harbour.
    With a history like this, many people wait in anticipation for the release of Art Fund’s Museum of the Year awards. The Museum of the Year award is a £120,000 annual prize given to the museum or gallery with the most imaginative, popular, or trailblazing project during the previous year. Memorably, this prize was given to five museums in 2020, alleviating the burden of the pandemic for, arguably, the most deserving exhibitors and creators. This year, five museums have been shortlisted in anticipation for a single winner of the prize.
    The first of this year’s finalists is The Burrell Collection, found in Glasgow’s largest park, the Pollok Country Park. The Burrell Collection exhibits a diverse range of objects and artworks, once owned by William and Constance Burrell, that cover an impressive five millennia of art history. Since reopening in 2022 after a major refurbishment, the museum has contributed £20 million to Glasgow’s economy, welcoming over 500,000 visitors in the process. It is impressive in its dedication to diverse art styles and exhibition techniques: its new display was designed by local grassroots groups and it offers various immersive technologies, such as interactive games to tell the histories of the collection to young children.
    Next up is Leighton House in Kensington, London. Advertised as a ‘step into a painter’s world’, Leighton House once belonged to leading Victorian artist and curator Frederic Leighton. The house has been gradually developed, preserved and modernised over the decades of its popularity, to ensure a fully wheelchair accessible space with various seating areas and a café overlooking its gardens. Leighton House is famous for its restorative effect, found in its architectural structure that directly mirrors the 12th century Italian Palazzo della Zisa in Sicily, with windows, large pillars and open ceilings. Notably, the museum is known for its support of contemporary Iranian artists, proven by its 11-metre mural by painter and calligraphy artist Shahrzad Ghaffari.
    Third and fourth to be shortlisted are the MAC in Belfast and the Scapa Flow museum in Stromness, Scotland. The MAC seems an unconventional choice. Despite opening in 2012, it is sure in its position as Northern Ireland’s leading art’s centre, as it exhibits various works of modern art whilst giving back to its community by running dance and theatre groups, and forging opportunities for working class people, the LGBTQIA+ community and those impacted by reproductive rights disparities. Scapa Flow also works to diversify the shortlist; the museum consists of a restored Second World War oil pumphouse and a gallery, displaying a collection of important wartime artefacts, such as weapons, uniforms and flags.
    There is evidently a lot to celebrate. However, every year, the celebratory nature of the awards is plagued by a dark and unspoken undertone. This is unveiled by a closer look at this year’s shortlist. Namely, it is hard to avoid the violent and colonial reasons behind the exhibition of many of the global artefacts in British museums. The Art Fund website spotlights the Burrell Collection as possessing “the most significant holdings of Chinese art in the UK”, whilst praising Leighton House for its infamous ‘Arab Hall’ which aestheticizes and condenses a wide range of Arabic history into one walkway, presenting the artefacts taken from locals by Frederic Leighton in the 1800s. Additionally, and unsurprisingly, it is the Natural History Museum that inhabits the final place in the shortlist, which is famously known to glorify the atrocities of the British Empire. Despite Art Fund’s obvious successes in fundraising, advocacy, and marketing for smaller collections and museums, it is important to ask the question: are the yearly museum awards celebratory or contradictory? Does the further empowerment of those that have stolen and collected colonial art for personal fortune, such as William and Constance Burrell and Frederic Leighton, diminish the early revolutionary work of the Fund? Or is this something we should continue to overlook?

More information on the awards can be found on the Art Fund website. https://www.artfund.org/museum-of-the-year.