As the UK nears the sombre milestone of one year since the first national lockdown, the opportunity for retrospective consideration grows – as do the reasons to commend outstanding work.

While the 2020 M+H Awards had to nimbly migrate online like almost all exhibitions and events, it is this year’s ceremony that will celebrate the inspirational work undertaken by organisations and individuals during the pandemic’s first wave.

Winners announced at the first ever virtual Museums + Heritage Awards 2020

Few people, if any, have gone into bat for the nation’s visitor attractions quite like Awards judge Bernard Donoghue. The director of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (ALVA) has been working closely with MPs and senior civil servants throughout the Covid crisis to chart the smoothest possible course for institutions operating in previously unimaginable circumstances.

Hard Times

In a quote fitting for a year that’s been Dickensian to a fault, Donoghue says 2020 and the first weeks of 2021 have been “the best of times and the worst of times”.

Concentrating on the positives, he cites the “extraordinary creativity and innovation” demonstrated by stretched workforces across the UK to open up visitor attractions virtually almost immediately after their doors were closed by government decree.

“We’ve seen the most extraordinary examples of partnerships, collaboration and sharing between organisations and sectors,” the ALVA boss notes. “There has been a silent acknowledgement that the best way to get out of this situation is to share and learn from each other.”

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Museums + Heritage Awards
Bernard Donoghue presents the Special Recognition Award to Sir David Attenborough at the 2019 Museums + Heritage Awards

Turning his attention to the unavoidable negatives, Donoghue concludes that the pandemic has exposed “just how vulnerable the museums and heritage sector is to something that is completely outside of its control”.

He does, however, believe politicians are increasingly wary of further damage to the culture sector. “The Treasury has never been more concerned with ensuring the sector is thriving. As the fifth biggest industry and third largest employer it is impossible to ignore, especially when the past year has shown the power of museums and galleries to provide places where people can heal.”

Having served as a “parallel NHS” throughout the adversity, the Awards judge asserts that the sector is “too important to limp on in a hand-to-mouth fashion” and that further support will be provided.

“If the experiences of Covid show us anything it’s that we are resilient, we are innovative and we will always bounce back. I have no doubt we’ll return stronger than ever after this but that isn’t to say there won’t be casualties along the way.”

Rightful recognition

The list of categories for the 2021 Museums + Heritage Awards is like no other before, with several prizes introduced specifically for courage shown during the pandemic and application fees dropped or scrapped altogether so as to remove barriers to entry.

Recognising pandemic responses a priority for Museums + Heritage Awards as 2021 categories announced

The important thing, Bernard Donoghue believes, is that everyone realises they are worthy of celebration.

“Noël Coward once said everyone deserves a little jam. I can’t think of a time when that was more relevant. Regardless of who you are, you warrant recognition. We must mark who has risen to the challenge and the [Museums + Heritage] Awards are the perfect way to do this.

“The innovation and ingenuity that’s gone on behind the scenes to excite and entice people back when the sector reopens has been absolutely astonishing. Whether you work in front of house, operations, cleaning, marketing, finance or security, this is your time to shine – you’ve really proved yourself in the last year.”


Applications for all 17 categories open on 1st February, with all details on how to enter available here.

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