Thank goodness it’s only the Oscars that are mostly about frocks. In the heritage world we take a more sedate approach to the giving and receiving of awards. But I should warn you that the season is about to begin.
Two important prizes are about to be announced with apparently different purposes. The Art Fund Museum of the Year award has real money attached – £100,000 for the winning institution. It recognises, of course, what is in the judges’ view the best museum of 2013, usually because of an investment made in the previous year. So the brand spanking new Hepworth Museum in Wakefield was bound to be on the shortlist, but so are several museums housed in historic houses.
Notable among them is the William Morris Gallery in East London, a collection of the extraordinarily influential works of Morris, his friend the artist Edward Burne-Jones and other key figures in the Arts and Crafts movement. Its home is the elegant Georgian house where the Morris family lived and where the young William spent his formative years. The refurbishment over the last few years at the gallery has created a fine space for the display of a remarkable collection of objects and paintings and while it is quite definitely presented as a gallery not a house, the interiors have provided an opportunity to recreate the interiors of William Morris’ workshop and of the original Morris & Co shop. As a display space, as an educational experience and as a continuation of the life of an important historic house, the William Morris Gallery is exemplary, and gives its visitors a truly up to date museum experience.
Dedicated to another dimension, are the Visit England Awards for Excellence. These pick up on the best in what England can offer tourists coming to the country or any of us, when we step outside our front doors to go on a visit. All of the finalists in the Large Visitor Attraction and most in the Small Visitor Attraction categories are heritage sites. Great, for example, to see Blenheim Palace, Beaulieu and the Roman Baths in Bath all up for a gong; it is a list of England’s longest standing and most important tourist attractions. Other categories cover accommodation and business, sustainability and open access, so these awards are good at celebrating the business side of tourism.
Sitting comfortably between these two awards schemes are the Hudson’s Heritage Awards. Here we are trying to recognise every part of what heritage sites have to offer for visitors in whatever guise they come: for a day out, as shoppers, as diners and takers of tea, as brides, as adventurers and as picnickers. But they also recognise the how well run heritage sites are for the future: the contribution of staff and volunteers, new commissions and commercial investments. Nominations for these awards are open now and run until September (or August if you want to nominate your favourite picnic spot).
Just like the Oscars, underneath the hype that surrounds each of these award schemes is a determination to maintain and improve standards at museums, in tourism and at all heritage places. We may not indulge in quite the same lengths of red carpet in heritage tourism but pay attention to the winners – they will each introduce you to what we do best.