William Morris Gallery basks in Prize spotlight

Published 24 June 2013

A few weeks after winning the Art Fund Prize for Museum of the Year 2013 we caught up with the project leader responsible for the gallery’s remarkable transformation to find out how they plan on spending the money and where it all went right.

After the dark days of local authority cuts and low visitor numbers, the William Morris Gallery fresh from winning Museum of the Year 2013 is basking in record-breaking footfall and an immense feeling of civic pride. Yet, this is only the beginning says Lorna Lee, Head of Cultural and Community Services for Waltham Forest Council.

The Museum of the Year judges awarded the £100,000 Prize for high curatorial standards, stunningly displayed collections and the fantastic visitor experience the newly refurbished gallery offered not only William Morris enthusiasts but the local community too. The impact of winning the Prize has been enormous for the gallery and Waltham Forest Council; a huge sense of local pride has permeated the area and visitors have flocked far and wide, bringing 2,500 people through the doors in just four days (they get just over 10,000 in a month).

The magic of Morris

So why does Lorna Lee think they won? 'At the core of it is a superb building, beautiful collections and an incredible person' says Lee 'I also think it’s been an incredible story, to have survived real challenges from budget cuts and to come out as one of the best, that’s what I think has done it.' The regeneration has indeed been a tale of hope over adversity and this tenacity to succeed has paid off; there were five times as many visitors this half term than before the regeneration two years ago – an enormous achievement for a local authority gallery on the verge of being forgotten forever. There are plenty post-Prize winning anecdotes to suggest the impact the Museum of the Year accolade has also been significant – from the couple who headed straight to the gallery from stepping off a plane from Melbourne and the visitors from Dublin who have made special day trips to see the gallery to the local pensioner who admitted they had only now visited their local museum after decades of passing it by.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of winning has been the increase in reputational capital and prestige. The team has already had offers from leading artists wanting to exhibit their work at the gallery, which is in stark contrast to loan applications being rejected several years ago. Lee is also hopeful this will unlock funding for the future and safeguard it from future rounds of cuts the sector may face.

Spending power

So what will they do with the money? Only yesterday Lee and her team were brainstorming this very question and they have also sought advice from the 2012 winner the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter. Yes, it is tempting to blow it all admits Lee but they must build for the future, 'We don’t want to just settle into a nice day-to-day part of life.' Plans for the funds range from sustaining their educational programme, extending their conservation plans so works that have not been fit for display can be restored to some quick wins; the longest serving volunteer is desperate to revamp the gallery's front entrance flower beds, they can now afford to replace existing cases with non-reflective glass and they want to add some more images to their postcard selection which was inspired by the success of the Museum of the Year Photography Competition. All these plans are underpinned by a huge sense of dedication and service to the Waltham Forest community and the team makes most of their decisions based on visitor feedback, as Lee beams, 'The visitor book is my gem.'

Secret to success

One of the main aspects the judges praised was the gallery's commitment to curatorial excellence. With cuts squeezing the opportunity for curators to learn and indulge their collections and an increasing pressure to take on museum management and admin tasks, how did Lee protect her curators from falling foul to a decreasing roll call of museum staff? 'The curators used to be responsible for front of house, and so I try and take as much away to enable them to concentrate on their core role.' It seems the key to nurturing this curatorial intelligence is using what resource you do have as effectively as possible, 'On paper we had fewer curators (than before the restoration) but actually before curators were only spending 30% of their time on these duties. I use 'curation' in the widest sense; it is from researching the collections and finding new angles right through to giving the guided tour.'

Contemporary attraction

In January 2014 the gallery will welcome a display of Jeremy Deller's Venice Biennale exhibition English Magic, the tour of which has been supported by the Art Fund, but finding contemporary artists to display alongside Morris has always been part of the strategy, 'One of our ambitions with the gallery is to identify Morris' ongoing legacy on an ethereal level, I've been surprised that the Jeremy Dellers and the Grayson Perrys are naturally inspired by William Morris, he's part of the way they think about things.' It was this enterprising programme of exhibitions which caught the eye of the judges; the gallery’s shows not only attract new visitors but help hard-core Morris fans relook and question the existing collection says Lee, 'Contemporary art is bringing different audiences and our pure Morris fans are getting a new angle.' Sounds like a win, win situation.

Speaking to Lee about not only what they’ve achieved at the William Morris Gallery but what they want to accomplish in the future is truly inspiring; with enough ambition, energy and belief it seems museums do have a future beyond funding cuts after all, 'This project has been a number of phases where we've had to take a deep breath and say right let's go on, and that's what the Prize has done, it’s taken us on another surge of saying 'come on, we can do even better.' We can’t wait to see what they do next.

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