Getting to know: National Heritage Centre for Horseracing & Sporting Art

Find out more about the five Art Fund Museum of the Year finalists for 2017. Today, the National Heritage Centre for Horseracing & Sporting Art talks retraining racehorses, sporting artefacts and reveals its royal connections.

We know it's rude to ask, but how old are you?

Only six months old. But then again I was originally made as the racing palace of Charles II which was built in 1671, so in another sense I am nearly 350 years old!

If we were to ask you to describe yourself in three words, what would they be?

Arty, historic and fun.

Art Fund Museum of the Year finalists come in all shapes and sizes and from far and wide. Tell us something interesting about where you live.

As I said, I was originally built for Charles II and his horses. Since then my hometown of Newmarket has become the historic home of horseracing, so it’s a magical place to live. Another interesting fact is that I span five acres right in the heart of the town, so I consider myself a little jewel of culture and history in this sporting paradise.

In a very exciting year for you, what has been the highlight (apart from being shortlisted for Museum of the Year, of course)?

Of course! Well it would have to be our formal opening by our Patron, Her Majesty The Queen on 3 November 2016. Horseracing is one of her passions and it was clear from the smile on Her Majesty's face how much she enjoyed it - we even had a number of her former racehorses stabled in the Rothschild Yard for her to feed a few carrots to.

What is your most treasured possession?

That's such a difficult question to answer as there's just so much to choose from, whether it's the wonderful prize amphora from Ancient Greece showing jockeys racing thousands of years ago (on loan from the British Museum), to Red Rum's famous sheepskin noseband, or even the living exhibits that inhabit our stables. If you pushed me I suppose I would have to say the Carlisle Bells, generously on loan to us from Tullie House Museum - they date from the late Elizabethan period and as well as being the earliest surviving racing trophies from Horseracing in the UK, they are the earliest material objects relating to the sport.

Before visitors leave, name one thing you are very keen for them to have experienced?

The Retraining of Racehorses demonstration in the state of the art Peter O'Sullevan Arena. Here you can find out exactly what it takes to turn a racehorse that is used to running fast in either a circle or straight line, into a riding horse that is more like a ballet dancer.

Children are the future of museums. What do younger visitors most enjoy when they come to see you?

Children were at the forefront of everyone's mind when I was being designed. From treasure windows at low levels, to fun interactives and trails, to our family friendly multimedia guide tour and even a family game of bingo - there is something to engage all of my younger visitors. My most popular gallery is the Pivotal Simulator Gallery - where you can ride on a racehorse simulator and experience what it is like to be a jockey and a winner at Newmarket.

You demonstrate how horses can be retrained after their racing careers. Tell us something not many people know about thoroughbred racehorses.

They can run over 40mph, their hearts are the size of a football (twice the size of a normal horse) and can weigh around 5kg. Thoroughbred horses are also believed to be a wild and flighty type of horse – but once you have visited and had the chance to meet one of my beautiful residents, I think you will come away with a very different opinion.

If you had to name one thing, what are you most proud of?

Our historic and diverse collection - from some of the oldest racing artefacts, to beautiful sporting artwork, through to living exhibits, we have something that will capture everyone's imagination but more than anything else it is our volunteers - they are just so committed and enthusiastic and we know we are making a real difference to the town.

You’ve had a fantastic 2016 and are in the running for Art Fund Museum of the Year. What are you looking forward to next?

We have so much to look forward to this summer, the Shetland Grand National and Father's Day Funday on the 18 June will be a highlight - where miniature horses and jockeys race for the title. We also have a really exciting new temporary exhibition devoted to Sir Alfred Munnings, which will look at Newmarket's impact on the work of this superlative equestrian artist.

So, July 5th. You hear your name read out… What would you do if you won Art Fund Museum of the Year?

Apart from leaping 10 feet in the air, we would come back to Newmarket with a renewed sense of purpose, knowing all our hard work had been rewarded with the ultimate accolade. For us this is huge. Just being included in the shortlist is so exciting but for the community of Newmarket and our region more generally it would prove that dreams are worth dreaming - that there's a purpose in aiming high and that in realising that ambition and vision you really can transform a town - I think there'll be one heck of a celebration too!

This year we're asking visitors to the five finalists to share their best museum stories, reviews, photos, memories and moments on social media using #museumoftheyear.

Find out more about the prize, the history, the judges and this year's finalists at Art Fund Museum of the Year 2017.

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