Ulster Museum

Tim Cooke

Director

Ulster Museum

National Museums Northern Ireland, Holywood, BT18 0EU, Northern Ireland

www.nmni.com

Belfast, Northern Ireland
ArtFund Prize 2010


Transforming the Ulster Museum 




Transforming the Ulster Museum has been the most important and most ambitious cultural project in Northern Ireland in living memory.  It has resulted in a dramatic increase in visitor numbers, deeper engagement with audiences, better display and awareness of  the collections and increased profile at home and internationally.

The Ulster Museum in Belfast is set in the city's Botanic Gardens. It first opened in 1929 - designed in the neo-classical architectural style and constructed from limestone. Its collections are diverse - it holds an extensive collection of Irish, British, European and American paintings from the 17th century to the present day - and a striking collection of Irish and international applied art covering, costume, jewellery, silver, glass and ceramics.

Its natural sciences collection covers natural history, geology, botany, and zoology - it displays a piece of the moon, meteorites, precious stones, stuffed birds and animals, skeletons and insects. 
It tells the story of human history in Ireland - from early peoples, the medieval land of saints and scholars, the plantation of Ireland, through to modern history and the shaping of Ireland north and south in the 20th century.  There are rich archaeological collections - and also wider collections from ancient Egypt, the Spanish Armada and world cultures.

In 1972 a large concrete extension was added in a modern "brutalist" style. That year also happened to be the single worst year of the conflict in Northern Ireland, a period referred to as "The Troubles" which began in 1969 and continued until the ceasefires of the mid 1990s and the subsequent political progress leading to the establishment of the cross-community government institutions which are operating today.

However during the period of the Troubles there was little investment in cultural infrastructure in Northern Ireland - the Ulster Museum had deteriorated as a building and aspects of interpretation and visitor facilities were outmoded.
In the context of the post-conflict situation the transformation project attracted investment totalling pound;18 million. The aim was to make the museum building and the collections more accessible to existing and to new audiences and to build a new and dynamic role for the museum at the heart of the community.

There was a major emphasis on learning engagement with the creation of Discover Art, Discover Nature and Discover History zones staffed by lively demonstrators providing stimulating programme activity.  All of the galleries were refurbished, a new three-story high glass and steel Window on our World installation was developed and new public areas were created including a 25 metre high Welcome Zone.  Greater emphasis was placed on public programming (including exhibitions, events and partnerships), formal and informal learning, and visitor engagement. 

Visitor response exceeded all expectations with numbers tripling in the first year and reaching record levels for any cultural destination in Ireland north or south. Visitor satisfaction levels are extremely high.  In June 2010 the Ulster Museum was awarded the Art Fund Prize, the most prestigious museum prize in the UK.  The project has also won 15 other awards for collections care, permanent gallery displays, marketing, visitor experience and community engagement.