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Firstsite in Colchester wins the Art Fund Museum of the Year 2021 award

21 September 2021

Firstsite in Colchester has been named Art Fund Museum of the Year 2021. The Colchester gallery claimed the prestigious award - and £100,000 prize - ahead of the Centre for Contemporary Art, Derry~Londonderry, Experience Barnsley, Thackray Museum of Medicine in Leeds and Helmsdale's Timespan.

Art Fund Museum of the Year

The five institutions shortlisted for the Museum of the Year 2021 | © Marc Atkins

The shortlist for the prestigious Art Fund Museum of the Year 2021, which rewards the extraordinary and innovative ways in which museums have served and connected with their communities over the past year, was:

  • Centre for Contemporary Art Derry~Londonderry, Derry~Londonderry
  • Experience Barnsley, Barnsley
  • Firstsite, Colchester
  • Thackray Museum of Medicine, Leeds
  • Timespan, Helmsdale

The winner of £100,000, the world's largest museum prize, was announced on Tuesday 21 September 2021 live on the BBC News Channel and on Radio Four's Front Row. The other four finalists will receive £15,000 each in recognition of their achievements in what has continued to be a challenging year for cultural organisations.

This year's judging panel comprised Maria Balshaw, Edith Bowman, Katrina Brown, Suhair Khan, Thomas J Price, and is chaired by Art Fund Director Jenny Waldman.

Speaking on behalf of the judges, Jenny Waldman highlighted that the five finalists: “are all deeply embedded in their communities and alive to the possibilities of reaching far beyond their locality digitally,” and that, “each have shown extraordinary innovation and resolve.”

Last year the Art Fund acknowledged the difficulties faced by museums and galleries, increasing the prize fund to £200,000 and splitting the award equally between Aberdeen Art Gallery, Gairloch Museum, the Science Museum, South London Gallery and Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne.

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Firstsite, Colchester

In 2021, Firstsite is celebrating the 10th anniversary of its eye-catching crescent shaped building.

The contemporary art gallery acknowledges the diversity, innovation, ingenuity and creativity of the inhabitants of East Anglia, with a mission to empower that community to lead healthier and happier lives.

With a reputation for presenting ambitious works and encouraging everyone to enjoy through an inclusive environment, Firstsite has worked throughout the pandemic to mobilise support to distribute welfare packages, offer free activity packs and show solidarity for diversity campaigns, while also reflecting the need for understanding the impact of Covid 19 on mental health.

Read on to find out more about the other nominees for the Art Fund Museum of the Year 2021.

Centre for Contemporary Art, Derry~Londonderry

The Centre for Contemporary Art has been exhibiting emerging artists from Northern Ireland since its inception in 1992.

It creates opportunities for audiences to enjoy experimental and engaging contemporary art, while supporting the development of artists through commissioning exhibitions, artist residences, public programmes and providing an online platform for artists to source information on funding schemes and initiatives.

A commitment to connecting with the local community has meant the CCA displaying artwork in spaces across the city including theatres, the shopping centre, and shop windows, together with providing activity packs to hundreds of schoolchildren.

Experience Barnsley

Situated within the iconic Town Hall, Experience Barnsley traces the history of the borough from prehistory to the modern day. Taking its inspiration directly from the homegrown community the collection is supported by thousands of local people who have shared their precious memories and objects, which make up the displays in the Barnsley Story Gallery. Dedicated spaces allow for evolving community created exhibitions which reflect Barnsley’s ongoing story.

Digital activities have increased the reach of the museum, with events including an online festival of archaeology. Social media engagement has also blossomed with Poet in Lockdown, Ian McMillan’s encouragement to write poems and get creative. Outreach to keep the community connected and cater for vulnerable groups resulted in care packages for schools, care homes, and virtual trips to the pub.

Thackray Museum of Medicine, Leeds

The Thackray Museum of Medicine is the UK’s leading independent medical museum.

The museum building first opened in 1861 as the purpose-built Leeds Union Workhouse, but by the 1990s the building was able to become a museum. Now an immersive visitor experience, eleven galleries display a collection that demonstrates how people have triumphed over disease.

Not just reflecting the historical battle with disease, the Thackray Museum was the first museum to host a Covid vaccination centre, delivering 50,000 vaccines. It has also worked with schools to produce content to reinforce the science behind hand washing, created the online exhibition Mothers in Lockdown and aided the community with food distribution.

Timespan, Helmsdale

Located in the Scottish Highlands, Timespan contains a local history museum, contemporary art programme and geology and herb gardens. Acting as a focal point for the community, the social hub also houses a bakery, café and shop.

The cultural organisation aims to respond to contemporary issues faced by remote, rural locations in Scotland and looks to reflect broad social movements with a global perspective.

Timespan produces four projects a year alongside a programme of artists residences. Recent projects have considered local history reframed through climate change and colonialism, tackling social justice in creative ways and a popular online cooking show.

A version of this article was originally published on 21 July 2021

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