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Press release

Big Pit: National Mining Museum of Wales wins UK’s largest arts prize
27/5/05

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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Notes to editors:

  • The Gulbenkian Prize 2005 judges are:

    • Sir Richard Sykes, Chair of Judges and Rector of Imperial College London - Chair
    • Joan Bakewell CBE, broadcaster and writer
    • Sir Neil Chalmers, Warden, Wadham College, Oxford and former Director of the Natural History Museum
    • Michael Day, Chief Executive, Historic Royal Palaces
    • Sokari Douglas Camp, sculptor
    • Victoria Hislop, journalist and novelist
    • Dr Elizabeth Mackenzie, Vice-Chairman, British Association of Friends of Museums
  • Public comments on the four projects can be found at www.thegulbenkianprize.org.uk

  • Over sixty applications were received from museums and galleries all over the UK.

  • The full shortlist, announced in January, for The Gulbenkian Prize for Museum of the Year was:

    • Museum of Barnstaple & North Devon
    • Big Pit, National Mining Museum of Wales, Blaenafon
    • National Trust West Midlands, Back to Backs, Birmingham
    • The Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge
    • Compton Verney, Warwickshire
    • Coventry Transport Museum
    • Time and Tide, Museum of Great Yarmouth Life, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk .
    • Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum & Art Gallery, Lochmaddy, North Uist
    • The Foundling Museum, London
    • Locomotion: the National Railway Museum at Shildon, Co Durham
  • The Gulbenkian Prize for Museum of the Year is administered by The Museum Prize, a charitable company created in 2001 by the Campaign for Museums, the Museums Association, the National Art Collections Fund and National Heritage. These organisations agreed to put aside award schemes they formerly ran (including the National Heritage Museum of the Year) and lend their support to the prize.

    The Museum Prize is chaired by Penelope, Viscountess Cobham. Trustees of The Museum Prize include representatives of all four founding organisations.

  • The Gulbenkian Prize for Museum of the Year is funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. The UK Branch of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation is responsible for grant aid in the UK and Republic of Ireland and runs funding programmes in arts, social welfare, education and Anglo-Portuguese cultural relations.

    The Foundation’s founder, Calouste Gulbenkian, was one of the most distinguished private collectors in the world. The Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon is well-known and loaned several major pieces of Lalique jewellery to the V & A’s highly acclaimed Art Nouveau exhibition in 2000 and simultaneously mounted a major exhibition of its treasures at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation is supporting The Gulbenkian Prize by guaranteeing prize money of £100,000 a year over five years; it is also providing some of the funding for administration.

  • The Gulbenkian Prize is supported by The Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA), the national development agency working for and on behalf of museums, libraries and archives and advising government on policy and priorities for the sector. MLA supports the Gulbenkian Prize for Museum of the Year under Renaissance, its ground-breaking programme to transform England’s regional museums. For the first time ever, investment from central government is enabling regional museums across the country to raise their standards and deliver real results in support of education, community development and economic regeneration. For more information, visit www.mla.gov.uk

  • The Gulbenkian Prize is also supported by Sir Christopher Ondaatje CBE, who is passionately interested in raising awareness of the range and quality of museums and galleries in Britain.

  • Additional sponsors of the 2005 Prize are:

    • National Heritage: the Museums Action Movement, is a charity founded to support and promote museums and galleries in the UK, and to represent the interests of their visitors and other users. It launched the original Museum of the Year Awards in 1973.
    • Blackwall Green (Jewellery and Fine Art) - Specialist insurance brokers to museums and galleries both in the United Kingdom and Europe.
    • A supporter of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation
    • Lloyds TSB Private Banking
    • Gulbenkian Prize Patrons: Sir Martyn Arbib, Consensus Business Group and Endsleigh Insurance (Brokers) Ltd
    • Bank of Scotland Corporate provided assistance towards Judges’ Scottish travel costs
    • Assistance in kind provided by:

      • 24 Hour Museum
      • DFJ Vinhos Lda – ‘The New Portugal’, UK Office D & F Wines
      • Farrer & Co
      • GLI Calderhead
      • Quentin Blake CBE
      • The Museums Association
      • Waitrose Limited
  • All four finalist projects received funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) which enables communities to celebrate, look after and learn more about our diverse heritage. From our great museums and historic buildings to local parks and beauty spots or recording and celebrating traditions, customs and history, HLF grants open up our nation’s heritage for everyone to enjoy. It has supported more than 15,000 projects, allocating over £3billion, of which over £1billion has been given to museums and galleries, across the UK.

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