A former South Wales pit that once produced 100,000 tonnes of coal a year, and which is staffed by miners, has won the £100,000 Gulbenkian Prize for Museum of the Year, the UK’s largest arts prize.
Sir Richard Sykes, Chairman of the Gulbenkian judges, who made the winning announcement at a ceremony at the Royal Institute of British Architects, comments,
”Any one of our four finalists would have been a worthy winner of this year’s Gulbenkian Prize for Museum of the Year but Big Pit offers an exceptional emotional and intellectual experience. It tells the individual stories of its community better than any museum I have visited and makes you contemplate the scale, and even the cruelty, of our industrial past which inspired a spirit of camaraderie and pride.
“All our finalists clearly show that museums today are not solely about displaying objects but are about the exposition of history, told with real passion alongside a commitment to a community’s heritage.”
Visitors at Big Pit in Blaenafon have been able to visit the underground mine since it first opened as a museum in 1983 but, until 2001, lack of funding left many of the sites on the surface untouched. Big Pit reopened in February 2004 after a £7 million redevelopment.
The thrilling underground tour, where visitors are led by miners down the 300ft mine shaft into the dark, dank subterranean passageways, past the pit ponies’ stables and along the tracks of the coal trucks, is still an integral part of the Big Pit experience.
Now, above ground, all the colliery buildings, including the pithead baths, the winding engine house and blacksmith’s workshop, have been restored and brought back to life with the sounds of the miners at work echoing from the past. The pithead baths, built as recently as 1939 and the first baths the miners had on the site, house the main exhibition. This tells the story not only of the coal mines themselves, but also of the communities that grew around the industry from the earliest days to the miners’ strikes and pit closures of the 1980s.
The Gulbenkian judges were unanimous in their praise of Big Pit. In recounting the story of the people of the South Wales Coalfield in a simple yet captivating way, Big Pit keeps alive the story of British coal, particularly for the generations born after the closure of the mines.
The £7 million redevelopment of Big Pit was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund (£5.5 million); Wales Tourist Board; Local Regeneration Fund; Garfield Weston Foundation; Lloyds TSB; Pilgrim Trust; SR & PH Charitable Trust; Coalfield Regeneration Trust; and the National Museums and Galleries of Wales. Admission is free; over 140,000 people have already visited Big Pit since it reopened.
The winner receives £100,000 and an enamelled silver bowl designed by award-winning metalwork artist, Vladimir Böhm.
The three other finalists were:
- Coventry Transport Museum
- Time and Tide, Museum of Great Yarmouth Life, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk
- Locomotion: The National Railway Museum at Shildon, Co Durham
The Gulbenkian Prize celebrates the innovative and excellent work taking place in museums and galleries today that is challenging traditional public perceptions of their role. It is open to any museum, large or small, in the UK, and its prize money of £100,000 makes it the largest single arts prize in the country.
Last year’s winner was the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh for its dramatic Landform by Charles Jencks – part sculpture, part garden, part land-art. The winner of the inaugural Gulbenkian Prize in 2003 was The National Centre for Citizenship and the Law housed in the Galleries of Justice in Nottingham.
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