Notre-Dame Cathedral was ravaged by fire, several institutions broke visitor records, cathedrals across England became must-visit heritage attractions, three culture secretaries led the DCMS (sort of), a London museum dedicated to female genitalia garnered global attention and the Turner Prize was shared between all its finalists. What a ride 2019 has been.

Landmark moments

The V&A hosted yet another stellar fashion exhibition. Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams sold out for its entire five-month run, leading the museum to extend the show by seven weeks. A remarkable 594,994 people visited the retrospective, eclipsing the V&A’s previous record for its 2015 Alexander McQueen exhibition.

Dresses on display as part of the V&A's record breaking Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams © Victoria and Albert Museum

Another organisation that will remember the statistics of 2019 fondly is the National Trust. Figures released in September showed that the organisation’s membership had leapt up by around 400,000 during 2018/19, rising to 5.6 million. Equally as startling, its visitor figures for the same period hit nearly 27 million.

No mention of 2019 would be complete without a sizeable reference to a summer which well and truly belonged to cathedrals. A record-breaking year for engagement and visitor numbers, the helter skelter in Norwich, crazy golf in Rochester and so many other quirky attractions across the UK propelled the ecclesiastical sites into tourist hubs during July and August.

“Fun and faith aren’t separate things.”

Andy Bryant, Reverend Canon at Norwich Cathedral

In one of the moments which mark a seismic shift in the established order, December saw the Royal Academy of Arts appoint its first female president in a 251 year history. Rebecca Salter’s election can hopefully inspire many more institutions to cast off outdated traditions which limit meritocratic progress.

Royal Academy
Rebecca Salter RA © Getty Images/Tristan Fewing

Comings and goings

2019 proved another year in which nobody could hold down the culture secretary job. Having spent just over a year in post, Jeremy Wright stood down from the role in July. He was replaced by former education secretary Nicky Morgan. December’s general election then saw Morgan announce her intention to leave politics for good, citing the levels of abuse and need to “be at home far more” as her motivations. Let’s hope her replacement doesn’t have the same struggles. Oh, wait…

Aside from re-welcoming the culture secretary, there have been many more significant appointments throughout 2019.

To name just two, Gus Casely-Hayford was unveiled as the first director of V&A East and Anna Lowe became Tate’s youngest ever board member when she joined the gallery group as youth engagement trustee.

V&A East
Gus Casely-Hayford © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Anna Lowe © Tate

New kids on the block

To describe the launch of the world’s first bricks and mortar Vagina Museum as a monumental opening may seem gratuitously tongue-in-cheek, but it certainly has proven a very popular addition to the nation’s cultural landscape. The Museum has even been mentioned on the iconic American comedy show Saturday Night Live.

Rebranding the Vagina Museum: Striking the balance between vulva and vulgar

There have, as always, also been some institutions that have been unable to make it through. Newseum in Washington D.C. is one such organisation, with the final day of 2019 scheduled as the moment its doors will close for the final time.

Journalism museum
Newseum's Pennsylvania Avenue frontage © Maria Bryk/Newseum

One of the more controversial closures in recent times was also announced in November, with the National Portrait Gallery revealing that in order to facilitate major redevelopment it will shut for almost three years.

National Portrait Gallery
Cross Section through galleries, new entrance hall and forecourt © Jamie Fobert Architects

A climate of change

The year has in no way solved the sector’s problems. Several significant breakthroughs have been made throughout 2019, however, that may well blaze a trail for a much more positive future.

Just as it has in wider society, climate change has become an increasingly prominent topic in the sector over the past twelve months. Swathes of museums have declared a Climate Emergency in 2019, a trend which was kick-started in the spring and followed by the likes of Tate and the Horniman.


A horse drawn procession with ‘Heralds’ wearing living grass coats grown by visual artists Ackroyd & Harvey © The Lightscaper Photography

BP has borne much of the brunt in the dialogue surrounding environmentalism and arts funding, but as with all such issues there are voices on both sides of the fence.

Also on this theme, an Advisor investigation in July uncovered evidence that DEFRA, the government’s dedicated environment department, sent more waste to landfill than six of London’s most popular cultural attractions.

The art of sustainability: London museums outperform DEFRA on key environmental indicator

Campaigning on issues such as workers’ rights and equality also bubbled to the surface at various points throughout 2019.

In the spring, twenty-seven educators won a landmark tribunal case against the National Gallery, granting them the rights of workers.

Science Museum Group
Science Museum Group employees on the first of their 2019 demonstrations © Amy Harbour

Science Museum Group employees took to the picket line twice in the latter part of the year to protest over pay conditions.

Arts Council England, too, decided to act on a perceived employment injustice, making the call to ‘ban the box’ from its recruitment process, meaning individuals are no longer obliged to declare any prior criminal convictions.

M+H Awards

May saw the return of the Museums + Heritage Awards. Recognising excellence and innovation throughout 2018, this year marked the 17th edition of the ceremony.

2019 winners

Innovation of the Year
They Shall Not Grow Old (14-18 NOW and Imperial War Museum)

Restoration or Conservation Project of the Year
Painted Hall Project (Old Royal Naval College)

Educational Initiative of the Year
Leeds Curriculum (Leeds Museums & Galleries)

Shop of the Year turnover less than £500k
Retail Transformation at the Florence Nightingale Museum

Shop of the Year turnover more than £500k
BALTIC Shop Refurbishment (BALTIC Shop, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art)

Limited Budget Project of the Year
Wonder Women of Space Exhibition (Herschel Museum of Astronomy, Bath)

Marketing Campaign of the Year
Look at this Absolute Unit (The Museum of English Rural Life)

Individual Volunteer of the Year
John Jenkins (The D-Day Story)

Volunteer Team of the Year
Multaka-Oxford Volunteer Team (History of Science Museum and Pitt Rivers Museums, University of Oxford Museums)

Temporary or Touring Exhibition of the Year
Spanish Flu: Nursing During History’s Deadliest Pandemic (Florence Nightingale Museum)

Partnership of the Year
Dippy on Tour, a natural history adventure (Natural History Museum, Dorset County Museum and Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Ulster Museum in Belfast)

International Project of the Year, less than £1m
Gapu-Monuk Saltwater: Journey to Sea Country (Australian National Maritime Museum)

International Project of the Year, more than £1m
Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination (The Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Permanent Exhibition of the Year
Being Brunel (SS Great Britain Trust)

An indisputable stand out moment of the 2019 ceremony was David Attenborough’s acceptance of the Special Recognition Award – an element of proceedings which was kept under wraps until the last moment.

The Awards also celebrated one of the most talked about social media moments of the year, if not in history. The Museum of English Rural Life scooped the prize for Marketing Campaign of the Year for that Tweet.

Will 2020 be your year?

Do you know an outstanding individual or organisation that deserves industry recognition for their work in 2019? Nominations for the Museums + Heritage Awards 2020 are open until 31st January!

To support all applications, a step-by-step guide detailing the entire process has been prepared to ensure you have the best chance of finding yourself on stage in May.

Staff picks

Looking back at the events of 2019, which stories resonate most with the M+H team?

Anna Preedy, Director

Unlocking museum archives in one click: Teesside duo pioneer artificial intelligence tool

“I’m biased, of course, but it was difficult to choose from so much great content! Still, this particular article nudged to the top of my list of favourites because I loved reading about how two young people identified a problem and then innovated to find a solution – one which will, I am sure, change audio archiving for ever. It’s both clever and inspiring – all credit to them!”

Felicity Jolliffe, Sales Manager

The Horniman: Eradicating plastic waste through retail and catering initiatives

“It’s so great to be part of a sector leading by example in protecting the future of our Climate. I really enjoyed hearing how The Horniman are committed to the cause through their retail and catering initiatives.”

Kelly Jenkins, Media Sales Executive

Moonwalking priests: Will 2019 prove a landmark year for visitor engagement with cathedrals?

“When asked to pick my favourite story of 2019 I immediately thought about the helter skelter at Norwich Cathedral! The work done by cathedrals this summer showed a diversity of opinion within the heritage sector and I like how it makes people think outside the box.”

Sara Bowen, Media Manager

Ethics, economics and the environment: the arts sector remains split on BP funding

“This article is by far my favourite – it’s such an important issue at such an important time. How do we balance the importance of continuing to collect and protect culture without taking money from a company that has unethical/climate-damaging roots? Can we afford to see this funding go elsewhere? Especially in the current climate. How shocking also that Advisor discovered the government’s environment department sent more waste to landfill last year than Tate Modern, Tate Britain, National Gallery, V&A, British Museum and Imperial War Museum combined.”

Satchmo, Office Dog

Dippy on display at National Museum Cardiff as tail end of UK tour nears

“There has been one touring exhibition that caught my attention more than most. Dippy’s journey around UK museums is a great initiative to maximise engagement with natural history. It also looks so so tasty! All those delicious bones.”

Festive greetings!

We’ll be back bright and early in 2020 to bring you all the latest news, views and analysis from the sector. Until then, from all of us here at Museums + Heritage Advisor, we hope you get to enjoy a well-earned relax over the festive season and wish you a very happy new year.

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