A new-look Art Fund Museum of the Year

St Fagans National Museum of History
St Fagans National Museum of History, the winner of Art Fund Museum of the Year 2019

Art Fund trustee and chair of judges Liz Forgan sets out the new approach to an exceptional edition of the world’s biggest museum prize in 2020.

The bids were in. The videos recorded. The judges convened. The longlist shortened. The prize-giving celebrations planned. The spotlight hovered over those destined for recognition in the biggest museum prize in the world… and then Covid-19 put a stop to life right across the museum sector, including the plans for Art Fund Museum of the Year 2020.

For a few moments we thought that was the end of that. This, of all competitions, could not have a single winner decided solely on the basis of written or filmed submissions. The key part of the process is for the judges to visit the museums in person, talk to the staff and visitors, see for themselves. But now this year’s judges – Jago Cooper, curator of the Americas at the British Museum; artist Ryan Gander; Melanie Keen, director of the Wellcome Collection; Art Fund director Jenny Waldman, and myself, in the role of chair – could not set foot in the shortlisted museums and nor could anyone else. Perhaps, like the Olympic Games, we should just put it off until next year?

But all of the museums and galleries had poured effort, skill and hope into their entries. If ever there was a time when the museum world needed a lift, it was now. The entries this year were of spectacularly high quality. We couldn’t just slink off for a year.

So instead, we decided to make this a moment to demonstrate Art Fund’s determination to support our museums and galleries as they face the biggest challenge of our lifetime. Thanks to the generosity of our 159,000 members, we have taken the opportunity to look forward to a celebration of recovery, upped the prize money by 40% to a total of £200,000 and decided to divide it between five winning museums which stood out as the supreme achievers in 2019-20.

As ever, the focus is on innovation and imagination in the way museums relate to their audiences. Every past winner has found a new way to engage with visitors – local, national and international. Some have had the benefit of capital projects, others just the brilliant imagination of curators and directors.

The five winners this year will be announced on 12 October, in a redesigned format. Instead of a prize-giving dinner, the announcement will kick off a week-long celebration of the life of the sector, with museums and galleries staging events and digital activity across the UK.

The BBC will be our partners in showcasing the winners (the announcement will be made live on BBC One's The One Show at 7pm), focusing on the pressing issues facing the UK’s cultural sector and demonstrating the dynamism and creativity of the nation’s outstanding museums. The Museums Association and the National Museum Directors’ Council will join in a day of new commissions, livestreams and special events full of fascination, defiance, invention and joy.

These are difficult and troubled times for all those responsible for looking after the nation’s treasures, whether ancient or modern. Art Fund is doing all it can to stand beside our museums in these unprecedented circumstances and to bump up support, whether moral or financial. We all know we have a long way to go to recover from the ravages of this year, but applauding outstanding work and celebrating the amazing quality and range of our museums and galleries has to be a good start.

Follow all the action via Art Fund Museum of the Year 2020

This feature was originally published in the autumn 2020 issue of Art Quarterly, the magazine of Art Fund.

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