Getting to know: Sir John Soane's Museum

  • Published 23 May 2017

Find out more about the five Art Fund Museum of the Year finalists for 2017. Today, Sir John Soane's Museum talks about its diverse collection, contemporary exhibitions and being back to just how Soane left it 180 years ago.


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

While I may look like a fresh-faced 180 year old, I’m actually even older. I’ve been preserved as I was on the day of my founder Sir John Soane’s death in 1837, but he invited visitors to see me long before. I’m actually just over 208 years old.

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

Unusual. Indescribable. Inspirational.

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.

I look unassuming from the outside – three townhouses in a leafy square right in the heart of London – but first-time visitors are in for a shock. I’m like the TARDIS, definitely bigger on the inside. There are so many things to see, so many rooms and treasures it is hard to believe. It is definitely a place to come and explore.

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

Well, in September I got even bigger! During seven years of restoration, little bits of me that had slightly changed or became hidden from view over the past two centuries were put back to how they were, and reopened to the public. There is now 30% more space to explore and 10% of my collection is back on display. I also had the great pleasure of working with some extraordinary contemporary artists. Soane was a huge fan of contemporary art, so collaborating with Sarah Lucas and Marc Quinn was a wonderful way to continue his legacy. And it meant I got to see lots of new people who had never come to see me before.

What is your most treasured possession?

That’s like asking to pick a favourite child! My possessions span eras, geographies and art forms. Everything from the huge 3,500-year-old sarcophagus of Ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Seti I, to a ring with a lock of Napoleon’s hair. I think if you ask my visitors though, they would say William Hogarth’s painting series A Rake’s Progress. Like an early cartoon strip, it satirised the London of its day and is one of the most well-known pieces of British art ever.

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

Our incredible Visitor Services team without a doubt. They know everything there is to know about me, and if they don’t, they will tell you something even more interesting. I have so many stories within my walls even I can’t keep up with them all. But through their passion, they make each one come alive and you’ll leave buzzing with inspiration.

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

They love being able to explore. There are so many nooks and crannies, secret doors and passageways that children feel like treasure hunters as they go around. It’s fun and they learn all about art, architecture and history along the way. When we reveal our hidden rooms to them, you should hear them gasp. They also love our workshops and drop-ins; the perfect place to get creative and make things.

If John Soane could see you now, what do you think he would be most impressed by?

That 180 years after he died, more people than ever, from all over the world, are flocking to his museum. He was a self-made man and he wanted people from all walks of life to be inspired and that is exactly what happens to this day. As part of being a finalist for Art Fund Museum of the Year we have asked people to tell us how they’ve been #inspiredbysoane. The responses are incredible, varied and sometimes moving; it would definitely make Soane smile.

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

I think it’s the completion of the restoration. After 30 years of work, the physical spaces of the museum are finally complete and are as they should be. It has been truly transformational and is the perfect foundation for another 200 exciting years.

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?

Our exhibition Marc Quinn: Drawn from Life is on until 23 September, so there are lots more visitors to welcome. After that, we have an exhibition on the discovery of the sarcophagus exactly 200 years ago in the Valley of the Kings. If you love Ancient Egypt, you won't want to miss it.

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

Soane knew how to throw a party; he had a three-day one when the sarcophagus was brought into the museum. It would be rude not to continue that tradition.

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.

Tags: museum-of-the-year