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June 15 2011

British Museum wins Art Fund prize

Museum in London takes £100,000 prize for its BBC-partnered A History of the World series and use of new technology

Britain's biggest prize for museums has been awarded to the biggest of them all – the British Museum, which won for its BBC-partnered A History of the World, a series charting the millennia through 100 objects.

The museum, which beat three considerably smaller institutions scattered around the UK also on the Arts Fund prize shortlist, wins £100,000, one of the most lucrative of all arts awards. It was presented by the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, at a ceremony in London on Wednesday night.

Michael Portillo, who chaired the judges, praised the museum's use of new technology. He said: "We were particularly impressed by the truly global scope of the British Museum's project, which combined intellectual rigour and open heartedness, and went far beyond the boundaries of the museum's walls.

"Above all, we felt that this project, which showed a truly pioneering use of digital media, has led the way for museums to interact with their audiences in new and different ways. Without changing the core of the British Museum's purpose, people have and are continuing to engage with objects in an innovative way as a consequence of this project."

It is the first triumph for a London-based national museum in the competition's nine year history. It won over a shortlist that also included the renovated Polar Museum in Cambridge; the new Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway; and the Roman Baths museum in Bath.

The much-praised A History of the World series was made in partnership with the BBC and included 100 separate 15-minute programmes on Radio 4 detailing objects in the collection by the museum's director, Neil MacGregor.

MacGregor said the series was a result of working with museums across the UK and that the prize money would be used to pay for a series of spotlight tours, lending highlights from the museum's collection across the country.

He added: "The British Museum is delighted to win the Art Fund prize on behalf of the extraordinary coalition of UK museums that made A History of the World so successful.

"A History of the World involved 550 heritage partners, from Shetland to the Scilly Isles, who worked hand in hand with the BBC to explore global stories through museum collections of every complexion."

The Art Fund's director, Stephen Deuchar, said it was an exciting moment for UK museums and galleries: "The British Museum's A History of the World is a museological tour de force and epitomises all that's great about curatorship in the UK today."

The judging panel chaired by Portillo also comprised the Guardian's chief art writer, Charlotte Higgins; the theoretical physicist Jim Al-Khalili; the artist Jeremy Deller; the heritage consultant Kathy Gee; the Antiques Roadshow expert Lars Tharp; and crossbench peer Lady Young.

A new prize, the Clore award for museum learning, was also night given to joint winners the South London Gallery and a consortium of the Pitt Rivers Museum and Oxford University Museum of Natural History, which get £10,000 each.

Previous winners of the award have been much smaller organisations. Last year it was the Ulster Museum in Belfast and before that the Wedgwood Museum in Stoke (2009) and the Lightbox in Woking. Judges this year visited 10 museums in total with the six other long-listed candidates being the Hertford Museum, Leighton House in London, Mostyn in Llandudno, the People's History Museum in Manchester, the V&A and the Yorkshire Museum in York. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 08 2011

Radio review: Unbuilding Detroit

An engrossing story of how art is flourishing in the midst of urban desolation

Unbuilding Detroit (Radio 4) began with evocative descriptions of empty private and public spaces. "The whole back of the house has fallen off," we heard in one house. The roof had gone too ("top of the stairs, where we walk into the sky"). In a city where a third of land or buildings are vacant, depopulation was a recurrent theme: "Here's an abandoned church that the congregation just walked away from."

But the story, in this well-made feature, was what has flourished in such urban desolation. Artists have reclaimed forlorn buildings and no-go areas. Tyree Guyton spoke about working creatively in a tough area. "I decided to transform my neighbourhood into something whimsical," he said. He wasn't kidding: houses are adorned with polka dots, random numbers, stuffed animals. "It's about getting people to see beyond what they think they see," he added.

Other artists relish where nature takes back the built spaces, with trees growing in houses and weeds disguising pavements. "Because it's in a city, it seems uncanny," said one. Another project placed a graffiti mural in an alleyway associated with gang violence, vandalism and drugs. Six months later, miraculously, it's still there and untouched. This was an engrossing programme, told only in the words and sounds from Detroit's streets, about the unpredictable life cycles of even hard-pressed cities. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 02 2010

Grayson on his Bike – review

Radio 4

The last thing Grayson on his Bike (Radio 4) ought to have been was boring. Artist Grayson Perry took his childhood teddy bear, Alan Measles, to Germany. Dressed as a young girl ("puffy sleeves, big petticoats, white frilly socks"), Perry toured the country, contemplating his formative years. In those, Alan Measles was a key figure: "He was the benign dictator of my fantasy world, and in some ways, the carrier of my manhood." He fought off the Germans in many a battle, we heard.

When he spoke about the bear's significance, and the impact of a stepfather moving into his household ("he fitted the role of the Nazis in my sub-conscious quite well"), this was engrossing stuff. But the rest of it was either a puzzle – really, why the trip to Germany, and why the particular locations? – or indulgent silliness. The bear was annoyingly voiced ("as a young teddy, I was faced with a grave crisis in Grayson's life") and we also heard from Perry's wife, sounding nonplussed. "I can't take it particularly seriously," she said in a long-suffering voice.

It was all nicely produced, and probably seemed a great idea on paper. On radio, though, it grated, and was dull despite all the quirkiness. Worse still, the programme had that deadly feeling of being really quite smitten with itself. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 12 2010

The Carabinieri Art Squad; Off the Page; The eSportsmen | Radio review

Radio 4 painted a dramatic picture of Italian detectives who specialise in catching art thieves

They say that if you dig a hole in the ground in Rome, you are almost certain to find a historical artefact of some kind. In The Carabinieri Art Squad (R4), Alex Butterworth accompanied detectives to a field outside Rome where a criminal gang had dug a 30ft hole in a field in the dead of night and looted the treasures from a vast Etruscan tomb.

The "tombaroli" (tomb raiders) are part of a larger organised crime network linked to drugs, arms and even human trafficking. They sell their stolen treasures to art dealers who, in turn, sell them to museums. "As they journey up the crime pyramid, they attain further layers of respectability," explained Butterworth, taking us into a fascinating world where detectives, through the painstaking nature of their work, have become art experts. Last year, there was a 75% fall in thefts of art treasures from galleries, churches and tombs. We heard the story of a Madonna and Child altarpiece recovered in three separate parts from three different private collections, and of the thief who stole a chalice from one church in order to donate it to another, insisting his name was carved on it. His priest turned him in to the police. Listening to some of the detectives of the art squad, you sensed that they, too, were following a calling that was almost religious.

If Butterworth's informed approach reminded you how consistently strong Radio 4's documentary strand is, this week's Off the Page, as if often the case with the channel's discussion-style programmes, made me want to run screaming from the room. Billed as a blend of "new writing and provocative debate", it featured novelist Stella Duffy, marriage counsellor Harry Benson and the ubiquitous Bidisha, writer, broadcaster and born disagree-er.

The subject was marriage and each guest had written a 400-word piece entitled "Shoulda Put a Ring on It". Benson put himself, and his rescued marriage, at the centre of a talk that was one-part therapy speak, one-part self-flagellating confessional. Duffy cleverly celebrated same-sex ceremonies while Bidisha, was – surprise, surprise – dead against it "because of patriarchy", though she did admit to blubbing along with everyone else when some friends, one of whom was "a real super, right-on feminist", took the vow. Suffice to say, the Beyoncé song of the same name contained more wit and social insight in a few short, sharp lines than their combined efforts.

In The eSportsmen (R4), Kate Russell gamely entered the all-male world of competitive computer gaming. What once was a bedroom hobby for computer geeks is fast becoming a lucrative sport in which teams compete against each other for increasingly large sums of money. Except computer gaming, as its name suggests, is a game, not a sport. A bit like darts.

Seven hours a day sitting in front of a computer screen does not, the programme concluded, make for a balanced lifestyle. Neither, though, does an intense youthful commitment to, say, tennis. The best quote came from one earnest young man who declared without irony: "I see gaming as an equal fighting field, but girls just don't seem interested." I wonder why. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 25 2009

History in the making

Nearly four years in the planning, Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 Objects aims to get more people into museums

The British Museum and the BBC today announced what they called an unprecedented partnership for a project that cannot be said to lack ambition: they want to help to construct a history of the world using objects collected from 2 million years of human history.

Neil MacGregor, the museum's director, called it "the biggest thing we've ever done" while Mark Damazer, the controller of Radio 4, said it was the "most ambitious and most thrilling project" he had worked on in more than 25 years at the BBC.

Details of the collaboration, nearly four years in the planning, were released at a launch in the grand surroundings of the Enlightenment gallery of the British Museum. The aim is to get more people interested in history, get people thinking about their place in the world, and get more of them into museums across the UK.

At its core will be a 100-part series on Radio 4 called A History of the World in 100 Objects, written and presented by MacGregor. From 18 January and in three tranches, the 15-minute programmes will be broadcast at 9.45am, in the traditional Book of the Week slot, and 7.45pm. Each will forensically examine an object from the British Museum collection.

MacGregor said the idea was about connecting human history by examining specific objects, whether old – a hand axe about 1.4m years old from Tanzania, or the burial helmet at Sutton Hoo, for example – or more recent, such as a chair made from guns decommissioned in 1992 after the Mozambique civil war.

Of course, the one problem with a radio programme is that you cannot see the object. Damazer defended the use of Radio 4 rather than BBC1: "Part of the joy of this is that we can tap into the extraordinary resource of the British Museum and we don't have to go all over the world and film for 10 years to do it."

He said history programmes on TV were too often "a rather large number of quite expensive rearrangements of medieval battles and lovingly rendered shots of brass rubbings", and radio was better able to explain the cultural, political and economic history of an object.

"What you want is the core idea and the core intellect," said Damazer. "What we have with the British Museum and its director is the most magnificent way of communicating a set of really quite complicated ideas but doing it in a way that is hugely accessible."

Also announced today was a CBBC series, Relic: Guardians of the Museum, which will see children tearing around the museum to unlock mysteries behind the objects. It features a ghost called Agatha and a competition: failure results in being locked in the museum.

The BBC regions and the World Service will also be involved. In Wales, 50 objects from Welsh collections will feature in four programmes presented by Eddie Butler called Wales and the History of the World. BBC Radio Scotland's daily arts programme, The Radio Cafe, will have six special editions on objects from Scottish museums.

MacGregor said the project went to the heart of what the British Museum was set up to do when it was created in the Age of Enlightenment: "Parliament set up the British Museum to allow all 'studious and curious persons, native and foreign born' to construct their own history of the world and to find their place in it.

"This is much the biggest thing we've ever done. Obviously, we're used to doing exhibitions, but they are focused on individual periods or a particular area, and what's been remarkable about this is that every bit of the museum has been involved – almost every curator has been involved in selecting the objects and working out the connections. We've never worked so connectedly within the museum and I think it's made everybody view the collection differently – to think of it as one world collection rather than different areas, different departments."

As well as museums making choices, the public will be able to select their own objects and say what they mean to them.

MacGregor hopes the project will get more people into museums. "Every major city in this country has a world collection. We can think about the history of the world, in the UK, in a way that no other European country can."

There will be guest contributors to each of the Radio 4 programmes: for example, broadcaster Sir David Attenborough describes the Olduvai Gorge stone chopper, writer Seamus Heaney reads Beowulf for a programme on the Sutton Hoo helmet, and London mayor Boris Johnson talks about the head of Augustus. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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