Are London's Museums Better Than Everyone Else's?

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 6 months ago
Are London's Museums Better Than Everyone Else's?
The Postal Museum and Mail Rail are up for 2018's Museum of the Year - representing London.

Us Londoners like to feel smug because quite frankly we've got it all; a glut of theatres, every type of restaurant, the highest paying jobs. Those outside might highlight higher crime, expensive property and the general brusqueness of London types.

Surely, though, London's got it down when it comes to museums and galleries — we're spoiled with them. No way can the rest of the UK — even combined — beat us at this category. Or can they?

Every year the Art Fund holds a Museum of the Year contest. In its 10th year, we're using the competition as a yardstick. Think of it as a genteel way of resolving this debate, the opposite end of the spectrum from Mortal Kombat — no freezing anyone and smashing them into tiny pieces with an uppercut. Just Twitter bragging rights and a chance to sneer at the tat in each other's gift shops.

Some housekeeping rules: we're not listing every nominated museum each year as that would take an age. And we're not including 2010 and 2012 when there weren't any London institutions in the running.

London vs Rest of the UK... FIIIIGGGGHHHHT!

Can't see this happening but any excuse to reference Mortal Kombat.

2008: Sexy science takes on Woking

In the London corner: Wellcome Collection, that sprawling home of all things science, including books containing the entire genetic code of a human being and porcelain miniatures of couples having sex inside fruits. Sexy science — beat that.

Representing rest of the UK: Woking, Bristol and the Shetlands had entries. There's a museum in the Shetlands? Yep, the Shetland Museum and Archives. It should've been disqualified on the grounds that transporting the award all the way there would be too pricey.

And the winner is...: The Lightbox in Woking. We do love its rectangular architecture but we're surprised it beat the Wellcome Collection, which is much bigger (and all exhibitions are free). This is the bit where we say something derogatory like 'WOKING?!'. Alas it's 1-0 to rest of the UK.

We do like the rectangular architecture of the Lightbox.

2009: A venue we've never visited... in London

In the London corner: Orleans House in Twickenham. Now this is a little embarrassing as it's a London venue we haven't actually visited... time to hang our heads in shame.

Representing rest of the UK: Stoke, Glasgow and Denbighshire had entries in the mix. Now, as typical Londoners, our geography outside the M25 sucks and we had to Google Denbighshire to ensure it wasn't some Tolkien invention. North Wales in case you didn't know, we won't judge you for it — though we will judge you if you don't take off a backpack when stepping aboard a train.

And the winner is...: The Wedgwood Museum in Stoke-on-Trent. Wedgwood: isn't that the company famous for decorative plates? Why yes it is. Feels a bit corporate to us, though we do quite fancy this Egyptian style teapot and we imagine the gift shop is pretty special. Also it's a bit rich of us to complain about feeling too corporate when we have a Starbucks on every corner. 2-0 to the rest of the UK and we're getting a little worried here.

The Wedgwood museum has quite the exterior.

2011: Rolling out the big guns

In the London corner: Now it's time to roll out the big guns, courtesy of that perennially popular destination, The British Museum. Who could compete with the might of a place that's always heaving... though largely with tourists.

Representing rest of the UK: The Roman Baths ... in Bath and the birthplace of Robert Burns got a look in. But we were intrigued by the Polar Museum in Cambridge, even with our limited geographical knowledge we're fairly sure Cambridge isn't near the North Pole. Turns out it's a research institute named after Captain Scott who died returning from the South Pole.

And the winner is...: The British Museum! Was there any doubt? 2-1 and we're clawing back. Both sides are already doing better than the UK at Eurovision.

Got to love that atrium, gets us every time.

2013: Three — count 'em — three London entries

In the London corner: This is the year when the award really took off, fielding 10 nominees meaning we had three in the running. Home of the beloved overstuffed walrus The Horniman Museum; London's oldest public art gallery, Dulwich Picture Gallery; and the William Morris Gallery out in Walthamstow. Dream team.

Representing rest of the UK: Too many to list here including the Preston Park Museum in Cleveland. Wait a sec, you can't nominate American museums for a UK award. Turns out there's a Cleveland in the North East of England too and it doesn't have a basketball team called the Cavaliers. Shows what we know.

And the winner is...: William Morris Gallery. It is a craft-y museum after all (sorry). We wager many Londoners haven't made the trip out to Walthamstow to visit this one, shame on you. It is at the end of an Underground line and we're aware how scared Londoners are of potentially ending up 'off-tube' — it's like a driver's equivalent of off-road. 2-2 and it's getting interesting.

Dulwich Picture Gallery was one of the nominees.

2014: A gallery without a roof

In the London corner: Two titans: Hayward Gallery and Tate Britain — this was after Tate Britain had that classy re-hang that we loved, so it must've been a front runner.

Representing rest of the UK: The nominees included two places we have soft spots for, as the Ditchling Museum of Arts and Crafts had a lovely exhibition on the Johnston font that's used on the London Underground, and Yorkshire Sculpture Park is high on our list of non-London museums to visit.

And the winner is...: Yorkshire Sculpture Park. We're going to put our snide comments on hold as wandering around a big sculpture park in non-polluted air is pretty special. Though if you get hungry, bear in mind that the nearest Pret is seven miles away. 3-2 as the rest of the UK edges ahead once more. What a match.

You can't argue with views like this, it's postcard perfect at Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

2015: The big boys lose out

In the London corner: The IWM re-opened after a massive refurb including an overhaul of the World War I galleries. There were hour long queues to get in, and it was absolutely worth it. Plus it was the year the Tower of London had that fabulous cascade of poppies. Two strong contenders and it's surely in the bag?

Representing rest of the UK: Four non-London institutions rounded out the selection. One that catches our eye is The MAC in Belfast — could this be the mac that Mark Morrison was on about? Alas no, it stands for the rather pedestrian Metropolitan Arts Centre, in county Antrim.

And the winner is...: The Whitworth in Manchester stole this one. London institutions were so upset, that the Tate poached its top dog, Maria Balshaw, to head up the Tate empire. That'll learn 'em for trying to outdo us. It's now 4-2 to the rest of the UK and could they be running away with this?

It's sun's out, guns out at IWM London but even that's not enough to win.

2016: Mind over matter?

In the London corner: We mixed it up with the heavyweight V&A and our tiny but quite brilliant Museum of the Mind — it's one of our favourite museums that most people haven't visited, largely because it is very remote and only open on certain days.

Representing rest of the UK: The nominees include the fantastically named Jupiter Artland in West Lothian, it's a lovely open sculpture park though, disappointingly doesn't contain any extraterrestrial art as we'd hoped.

And the winner is...: The V&A clinched it. A win for London but we were torn on this as we were really rooting for the underdog that was the Museum of the Mind — it deserves it just for the statues of raving and melancholy madness at the entrance. Most importantly, Rest of the UK's lead decreases to 4-3.

Raving and Melancholy Madness greet visitors to the Museum of the Mind.

2017: An outsider wins it

In the London corner: The daddy of all art galleries Tate Modern made the cut after a superb extension, plus our favourite quirky venue, John Soane's Museum was in the running too. Every time we visit we find a new nook we hadn't spotted before.

Representing rest of the UK: The National Heritage Centre for Horseracing and Sporting Art is a nominee and surely has to be in with a shout for longest museum name as well. Still, it's a better title than The Glue Factory isn't it.

And the winner is...: Hepworth Wakefield became the second member of the Yorkshire triangle of museums to nab the award. Probably for the best as we don't want Tate Modern to get even busier, and we're always worried that more people visiting the John Soane's Museum will result in some damage to their tightly packed display. 5-3 to the rest of the UK it ends. Don't you ever call us biased again.

The rather stylish exterior of the Hepworth Wakefield.

2018: Can London score off the Post(al Museum)?

In the London corner: The brand new Postal Museum is in the running, with its secret (but not that secret) weapon: the mail rail. We've been on it twice and it never gets old.

Representing rest of the UK: It's a strong competition this year as the Ferens Art Gallery was the heart of Hull's year as the city of culture and the Glasgow Women's Library would be a deserving winner as the only accredited UK museum dedicated to women's lives.

And the winner is...: We'll have to wait until 5 July to find out. But who can resist not just a miniature railway, but an underground miniature railway? Go Postal Museum.

The Brooklands Museum is going up against Postal Museum this year.

Who wins?

It was a tight contest but the rest of the UK edged it 5-3, without anyone needing to deliver a hundred hand slap or an upside down whirlwind kick. Even if the Postal Museum wins this year, we'll still be down 5-4.

Pedants may state it's actually 7-3 if you include the years when London didn't have a nominee, as technically all museums are eligible every year. But pedants insist we should call Crossrail the Elizabeth line, so they should be ignored.

Now London should be humbled by this result but that's not the London way. We'll comfort ourselves with some smashed avocado. Plus those other museums need it more, ours remain as popular as ever.  To paraphrase a great Londoner — a person who is tired of London's museums, is tired of life.

The 2018 Art Fund museum of the year will be announced on 5 July. All nominees and winners may be found on the Art Fund website.

Last Updated 21 June 2018