St Fagans now joins an illustrious club, featuring names such as Tate St Ives, The Hepworth Wakefild, the V&A and Yorkshire Sculpture Park, which have all used the Museum of the Year title as a springboard to further successes.

This year’s judging panel was chaired by Stephen Deuchar, who was joined by David Batchelor, Brenda Emmanus, Bridget McConnell and Bill Sherman.

In the run-up to the show, Deuchar referenced how UK museums “continue to challenge and inspire” in spite of difficult times. “The five shortlisted museums,” he continued, “have each offered outstanding and different approaches to the vital task of engaging with the widest public in new and adventurous ways.”

Awards special recognition – Jan 2021- Mid article banner

This year’s unsuccessful finalists

HMS Caroline, Belfast

As the last remaining British light cruiser ship from the First World War and the Royal Navy’s sole survivor from the Battle of Jutland, the largest sea battle of the First World War, HMS Caroline offers an extraordinary insight into naval history, maritime warfare and the story of the Irish sailor. After averting plans to scrap the ship, an ambitious £20 million project to rescue, conserve and restore HMS Caroline was completed in 2018. The ship now offers an inclusive and accessible space for everyone to enjoy. An innovative learning programme and an immersive introductory exhibition in the newly renovated Victorian pump house surrounding the ship brings HMS Caroline’s long history and 90-year presence in Belfast alive.

Nottingham Contemporary

Since opening in 2009, Nottingham Contemporary has reached over 2 million people through its contemporary art exhibitions and engagement activities. Last year contained several watershed moments for the gallery, in which three critically acclaimed exhibitions shined a light on the work of women artists, and on overlooked and marginalised cultural practices. Virtual reality tours of the exhibitions allowed online visitors across the world to engage remotely. In 2018, the gallery also presented innovative performance art and ran educational programmes aimed at families, pupils, teachers and women in difficult circumstances, which saw a 25% increase in participation within these groups.

Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

Showcasing one of the most important collections of anthropology and archaeology, the Pitt Rivers Museum is remarkable for its singular approach to the presentation of objects and its willingness to encourage new interpretations. In 2018, the museum embarked on a series of innovative programmes: ‘Hope’ asked radical questions about their collection’s colonial past, ‘Making’ examined the link between making objects and health, ‘No Boundaries’ worked with refugees to reinterpret collections, and ‘No Binaries’ encouraged queer responses to the museum’s collections to celebrate diversity and challenge prejudices. The museum’s 600,000 strong collection of objects and new creative programmes brought in a record-breaking 502,000 visitors last year.

V&A Dundee

In September 2018 V&A Dundee opened its doors after 11 years of planning and construction, becoming the UK’s first design museum outside London. At the heart of Dundee’s waterfront, the building designed by Kengo Kuma is both a striking intervention and a feat of engineering. The museum showcases international design alongside the outstanding achievements of Scotland in the museum’s permanent Scottish Design Galleries and a programme of major exhibitions. Born from a unique partnership between the V&A, local government, universities, enterprise and communities, the new museum has helped regenerate the area, with 100,000 people interacting with the museum’s pre-opening programme and over 500,000 people visiting since it launched.

One of Wales’ most popular heritage attractions, this year’s winner, St Fagans, explores the history and culture of the country. Last year the museum completed its Making History project, a £30 million redevelopment to become Wales’ National Museum of History, opening new galleries and workshop spaces and transforming its visitor experience.

Throughout the development, the museum remained open, welcoming 3 million visitors to enjoy recreated iron age houses, royal residences and a new craft centre, as well as engaging 720,000 people in shaping the museum’s transformation through an imaginative public programme – reflecting the museum’s aim to create history ‘with’ rather than ‘for’ the people of Wales.

Two of this year’s unsuccessful Art Fund finalists were also nominated for gongs at the 2019 Museums + Heritage Awards. Both Pitt Rivers Museum and V&A Dundee were selected by the M + H judges, with the former scooping a prize at the ceremony on 15th May.

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Past winners

2018 Tate St Ives

2017 The Hepworth Wakefield 

2016 V&A

2015 Whitworth

2014 Yorkshire Sculpture Park

2013 William Morris Gallery

2012 Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery

2011 British Museum

2010 Ulster Museum

2009 Wedgwood Museum

2008 The Lightbox