The ss Great Britain, the world’s first great ocean liner, has won the £100,000 Gulbenkian Prize for museums and galleries in this, Brunel’s bicentenary year.
The judges were united in their admiration for Brunel’s ss Great Britain, with one judge describing the impact of the magnificent preserved hull as “visual poetry”. The 35-year battle to preserve the world’s first iron ocean-going ship culminated in her triumphant re-launch in July last year. Now she sits in her birthplace, Bristol’s Great Western Dockyard, on a glass “sea” above a giant dehumidification system, designed to halt the rampant corrosion in her iron hull.
Above the water line, the ship has been brought to life with all the sights, sounds and smells of a pioneering voyage to Australia, from the spartan functionality of third class passenger berths through to the opulence of the First Class Ladies' Boudoir.
Alongside is the Dockyard Museum where imaginative displays chart the history of Brunel's masterpiece and the stories of those who sailed with her and rescued her.
Robert Winston, Chairman of the Gulbenkian judges, who made the winning announcement at a ceremony at the Royal Institute of British Architects this evening, comments,
“Each of our four short-listed museums and galleries could have been a deserving winner but ss Great Britain got our unanimous vote for being outstanding at every level. It combines a truly groundbreaking piece of conservation, remarkable engineering and fascinating social history plus a visually stunning ship above and below the water line. Most importantly, the ss Great Britain is accessible and highly engaging for people of all ages.”
The Gulbenkian Prize is given annually to one museum or gallery anywhere in the UK, regardless of its size or budget. 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.
The restoration of the ss Great Britain cost £11.3 million and has so far been met by an £9.2 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and £2.5 million from supporters and members. Now the ss Great Britain receives £100,000 and becomes for one year the holder of the Prize trophy - an enamelled silver bowl designed by award-winning metalwork artist, Vladimir Böhm. Her trustees plan to put the prize money towards rebuilding the forward masts and completing the presentation of the ship as launched in 1843.
The judges were full of praise for each of the short-listed museums. They felt The Collection: Art & Archaeology in Lincolnshire in Lincoln was a major new cultural asset for the City and County: a beautiful new building, presenting an imaginative conjunction of history and art, and conveying a powerful sense of the connections between people and place.
The renewal of the galleries at London’s Hunterian Museum was praised for its brave and imaginative presentation of what can be considered controversial material. At its heart is John Hunter’s own 18th century collection of medicine, natural history and art, brought together by the team at the Hunterian with “flair, commitment and belief” to create something that is far more than just a specialist surgical museum.
The judges felt the new Underground Gallery at Yorkshire Sculpture Park in Wakefield was a superb addition to this much-loved venue, recognised as one of the best sites in the world to see contemporary sculpture in the open air. The Gallery has been elegantly incorporated into an 18th century garden. It is wholly modern, yet respectful of the atmosphere and ambiance of its setting.
The short-listed museums will all receive a plaque to display as well as framed citations from the judges.
The judging panel comprised:
- Professor Robert Winston, esteemed scientist and broadcaster as Chair
- Michael Day, Chief Executive, Historic Royal Palaces
- Ekow Eshun, writer, journalist and broadcaster and artistic director of the ICA
- Diane Lees, director of the V&A Museum of Childhood
- Joanna Moorhead, journalist and author
- Dan Snow, historian and broadcaster
The Gulbenkian Prize for museums and galleries is, at £100,000, the biggest single arts prize in the UK and is funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary.
Last year’s winner was Big Pit: National Mining Museum of Wales in Blaenafon, a preserved coal mine where visitors can descend 300 feet underground to experience the working conditions that generations of miners endured daily. After winning the prize, Big Pit had a total of over 158,000 visitors for the season, which was an increase of 12,000, or just over 8%, on the previous year. The museum was also able to stay open throughout the winter for the first time in a number of years.
The 2004 winner was the landscape sculpture Landform by Charles Jencks at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. The inaugural prize was awarded to the National Centre for Citizenship and the Law at Nottingham’s Galleries of Justice in 2003 for the education programme it ran with schools, young offenders and the local community.
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