‘As visitors return, the UK’s museums have a new sense of purpose’


• Read about the museums shortlisted for the Art Fund Museum of the Year 2022 here

Things are beginning to get back to normal for UK museums and galleries. Visitors and income are steadily returning, at 61% and 68% of pre-pandemic levels, respectively. Emergency funding had enabled the sector to weather the crisis of the last two years. But the underlying picture is one of financial fragility caused by years of underfunding, which is now being exacerbated by the cost-of-living crisis.

Despite the tumult of the pandemic and the continuing financial pressures, it is heart-warming to see museums and galleries creating exciting programmes on site, online and in their communities. So many institutions have used this time of crisis to reflect, reimagine and drive change. Our museums are on a mission, with a renewed sense of purpose and place both locally and within wider society.

The finalists for Art Fund Museum of the Year 2022 are remarkable proponents of this type of innovation and the determination to make a difference.

Each year Art Fund, the national charity for art, brings together an expert panel of judges to shortlist outstanding UK museums for the world’s biggest museum prize. One winner will take home £100,000 and each of the runners-up £15,000. All will enjoy huge boosts to their profiles and visitor numbers.

The five superb finalists are tackling the vital issues of today—from combating the climate emergency and improving literacy to exploring migration—and reaching diverse communities as they do so.

The People’s History Museum in Manchester is inspiring the next generation to become active citizens, not only by showcasing marginalised voices but campaigning with them too. London’s Horniman Museum and Gardens has radically reimagined its role and reoriented its activity to reach and engage with new audiences, addressing the climate emergency. Wrexham’s Tŷ Pawb, which translates from Welsh as “everyone’s house”, has established its Useful Art Space to meet varied and pressing needs among its community, from asylum seekers to creative groups.

The Museum of Making in Derby has transformed the site of the world’s first factory and is empowering future makers with its on-site creative community offering equipment and support. And Oxford’s Story Museum is firing the imagination of young people through the power of stories. By directly targeting those most in need, it aims to improve children’s literacy and oracy in a city where 26% of children live in low-income households.

I’d hazard a guess that readers of this paper have a passion for art fostered through childhood visits to museums and galleries. But for many young people today, such inspirational art and heritage is inaccessible-—and the pandemic has made things worse. Museums are telling us it is their priority to re-engage with schools, children and young people, and Art Fund’s Energise Young Minds fundraising campaign has so far raised £1m to connect museums with these audiences.

The Museum of the Year finalists are inspiring the next generations and also equipping them with essential skills. The Museum of Making’s learning programme, created with Rolls-Royce, improves young people’s ability to enter the workforce in a city in need of engineers, technicians and problem-solvers. The Story Museum is working with teenagers to build digital skills by recreating museum spaces in Minecraft. Tŷ Pawb offers its spaces to a broad range of young people, from families in need of a place to play, to students for study sessions.

The Horniman is sharing a more sustainable future for the world, from guiding families to become Environment Champions to planting trees to combat air pollution. The People’s History Museum, who co-create all their programmes in partnership with communities, are using interventions in their galleries to help children understand the complex issues faced by those who experience migration.

On 14 July we will come together at the Design Museum, in London, to announce a winner from these finalists. But at the heart of the celebrations will be all UK museums and their remarkable resilience and creativity.


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