Being an Art Fund Museum of the Year finalist

  • 14 August 2017

Maxwell Blowfield is Communications Officer for Sir John Soane's Museum. Here he writes about the experience and impact of being a finalist for Art Fund Museum of the Year.

Members of the Sir John Soane's Museum team

Members of the Sir John Soane's Museum team

I’m sure it’s the closest I’ll come to knowing how it feels to be up for an Oscar. A few weeks ago, I was sat in the British Museum, waiting expectantly for Jo Whiley to announce the winner of Art Fund Museum of the Year 2017. As an employee of Sir John Soane’s Museum, one of the finalists, I experienced a sudden rush of emotion that I imagine is very similar to what Academy Award nominees feel: excitement, anticipation, apprehension, fear of how you’ll react if you lose, greater fear of how you’ll react if you win. It was a thrilling moment.

As the name ‘The Hepworth Wakefield’ was read out (evidently my destiny was more Amy Adams than Meryl Streep) a momentary burst of disappointment quickly changed into respect and pride for the deserving winners. And then there were cocktails. It was a little sprinkle of Hollywood under the roof of the Great Court.

After the excitement of the evening, I realised what an achievement it had been to be a finalist for the biggest museum prize in the world. We applied as a way to acknowledge the incredible year we’d had. Our major seven-year restoration had been completed, resulting in a third more space open to visitors, 10% of the collection restored and redisplayed, and the creation of new facilities including two temporary exhibition spaces. Our application was a statement of how proud we were of this hard work. We didn’t know what would happen, but there was nothing to lose, and plenty to gain.

And gain we did. After being shortlisted as one of the final five – alongside an eclectic mix of The Hepworth WakefieldLapworth Museum of Geology, Tate Modern, and National Heritage Centre for Horseracing & Sporting Art – we began a whirlwind journey that will leave a lasting legacy.

When the shortlist was revealed, our profile exploded, with news announcements across the major media. There were special features in the press, including the Daily Telegraph and a beautiful double-page spread in the Guardian. The BBC offered incredible support during the whole process as media partner, and so we were able to feature on programmes a small museum such as ours would rarely, if ever, be covered. We were on a primetime Saturday evening programme on BBC Two, we were on Radio 2’s Chris Evans Breakfast Show, Radio 4’s Front Row came to record here, BBC Arts Online featured our video, and we were even lucky enough to have BBC Breakfast broadcast live from our Picture Room (definitely worth the early start!). It felt like the spotlight was well and truly on us.

With the exposure came the visitors. People are spoilt for choice for museums to visit in London, and the Soane has to compete hard with the big players. But as soon as we were named a finalist, our visitor numbers went up. The first weekend alone they were up 16%, the week after the winner announcement it was 18%. All but two of the weeks in between saw rises year-on-year. The day of the BBC Breakfast broadcast saw a record number of visitors for a Saturday. What was also great was that the vast majority of these were here for the first time.

As our Head of Operations, Joanna Healey, told me: ‘It clearly brought a new audience to the museum, who were hugely engaged and coming to see a specific room or object that they may have heard about in the past, but never quite made it here to see. Being a finalist convinced many people that they had to come and experience it for themselves.’

These visitors were greeted by our passionate front-of-house and volunteer team, creating a real buzz on the museum floor. Katie Weston, our Volunteer Manager, said: ‘Many of our volunteers are here to get valuable work experience in a museum environment. To be volunteering while we were a finalist for this high-profile prize – with banners and posters and badges everywhere – was fantastic for them. It made them feel part of something really big, something they could have a hand in helping us win by giving our new visitors the very best experience. That’s great experience for any emerging museum professional and is something they can take with them as they begin to develop their career. Their passion, dedication and skills really shone through. We couldn’t have done it without them.’

However, perhaps the best thing about being shortlisted was how it energised all our supporters to get behind us. We really wanted to demonstrate the huge passion there is for the Soane, so we encouraged people to tell us how the museum had inspired them, by using the hashtag #inspiredbysoane on social media. We created our very first visitor comments wall so the conversation could be brought into the physical space as well. We also asked our Visitor Assistants for their thoughts, commissioning new photography so we could include them on our blog. The comments we received were incredible, from architects and designers, to school children and London residents who had been coming here for decades, it really was a wonderful to read. It felt like we all came together in celebration, sharing this moment with our audiences.

That is why being a finalist was one of the best experiences of my museum career, and something that I know will benefit the Soane for many years to come. It’s a mark of excellence we can build on further as we move forward. We’ve also forged new connections with four incredible museums, learning from their success and how they do things. And we’ve cemented our relationship with Art Fund, whose support was outstanding and that will no doubt continue.

For a small museum like ours, to be the focus of the national conversation about the best museums in the country was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The prize is only getting bigger, so I would urge any museum that feels like it has achieved great things this year to apply for 2018. We loved being in the class of 2017 (plus we got £10,000 to boot). Who wants an Oscar anyway?

Maxwell Blowfield is Communications Officer for Sir John Soane’s Museum, finalist of Art Fund Museum of the Year 2017. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @maxwellmuseums

Tags: museum-of-the-year