Little Narberth Museum in running for Britain's biggest art prize
One claim to fame held by the tiny Welsh market town of Narberth is that its inhabitants were in the thick of the 19th century where angry farmers would dress as women to pull down tollgates and storm workhouses. Today it is better known for its and as of late Tuesday a small museum that is in the running for Britain's largest art prize.
, which reopened in July after a nine-year struggle, is one of 10 museums and galleries to be named as finalists in the £100,000 .
It's fair to call it a minnow. Especially when you look at some of the other contenders which this year include internationally important institutions such as the in Glasgow and England's first public art gallery, the 202-year-old .
"It is phenomenal, I can't believe it," said Narberth's curator Pauline Griffiths. "We were absolutely delighted and not a little amazed when we heard the news. We are a small community museum, there are lots of us all over the country and maybe we're there representing them. It is such a nice stamp of approval for us."
Narberth is a pretty market town in the Pembrokeshire countryside with a population a little over 2,000. The museum was forced to close in 2003 when new owners took over their building and for many organisations of its size, that would have been that.
"We had amassed quite a nice collection and we didn't want it to be dispersed or destroyed so we decided to come back in some shape or form," Griffiths said. "It took us nine years, a lot longer than we expected."
Campaigners finally convinced the Welsh government and the Heritage Lottery Fund to give money which resulted in its reopening in a building, The Bonded Stores, which was used for a century by the firm of James Williams Ltd to store booze duty free until it was sold on. "I suppose you could say the cloud had a silver lining but it took a long time to show," said Griffiths.
The museum, with four part-time staff and 30 volunteers, opened last July and with no regular funding it relies on the income it generates. "We are a very different animal to the big beasts on the list," said Griffiths.
The collection tells the story of Narberth, including the mid-19th century Rebecca Riots, as well as its position on the imaginary Landsker line which supposedly separates the English and Welsh speakers of that part of .
Stephen Deuchar, the Art Fund's director and chair of the judges, said the list celebrated the quality and diversity of British museums today.
The prize rewards the very best curatorial and programming in British museums looking specifically at things that have happened in 2012. Many of the museums have benefitted from lottery money. "It is a reminder," said Deuchar, "that amid all the doom and gloom of cuts which are making running costs so difficult to raise and the sustainability of museums in the long run such a worry, the Heritage Lottery Fund is still able to make very imaginative grants in every corner of the country."
Despite the funding cuts everywhere, museums and galleries in Britain seem to be thriving. "I think the museum infrastructure in this country is actually in a really good place which is why the funding cuts are so depressing," said Deuchar.
"Museums which are suffering cuts are not responding by contracting but by simply working harder to make them more appealing. It is not a return to the Thatcherite days when everyone looked to being incredibly commercial and charging for everything that moves. It is more about providing intensely high quality of experience which makes people want to return."
Many on the list have undergone substantial revamps. , for example, reopened in September following a £14m project to double the space and bring everything under one roof. Others are , which underwent a £7m redevelopment; the , which completed 10 years of work to unify the museum and the gardens; , east London, which reopened last August; and Cambridge's , long a hidden gem, which completed a two-year redevelopment last year. Its director Nicholas Thomas said the shortlisting was "an invaluable and timely opportunity" to tell people about its changes. "We have changed from being a Victorian museum focused on supporting research, into a welcoming, beautifully-designed museum where young and old alike can experience our myriad treasures and astonishing stories."
The last decade has been noticeable for the number of new art galleries in Britain and their numbers are represented in the shortlist by the , which opened in 2002 and last year opened a new cultural hub called in Newcastle; and the , which had its first full year with 385,000 visitors.
A panel of judges that includes historian and MP Tristram Hunt, writer and broadcaster Bettany Hughes, artist Bob and Roberta Smith, and journalist Sarah Crompton, will now visit each museum before the winner is announced on 4 June.
The award, which began life in 2003 as the Gulbenkian prize, has been handed to museums that have included Brunel's SS Great Britain in 2006, the British Museum in 2011 and last year the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter.