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The £100 000 Gulbenkian Prize has become the equivalent of Oscars for the museums and galleries world. But to what extent is, or should, the role of design be acknowledged?

Whether as tourists, schools, designers, architects, politicians, media, or simply as weekend visitors, museums and galleries have become increasingly important to us. And the corresponding influx of money, particularly from the Heritage Lottery Fund, means the sector has long since shaken off its fusty image. It is even, on occasion, glamorous as well as worthy.

The Gulbenkian Prize is the equivalent of the Oscars for the museums and galleries world, and, this month, the list of ten projects for the £100 000 award, now in its fifth year, was announced. They range from the large and predictable, such as the gorgeous, revamped, 1930s De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea, and the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art (designed by Softroom), to the small and more esoteric. Take, for instance, the Warner Textile Archive at the Braintree District Museum in Essex, or the Scotland & Medicine partnership, led by the Surgeon’s Hall Museum, which has opened up medical history through touring exhibitions, websites, and linking up little-known collections. Others, such as Kew Palace and the Horniman Aquarium, are clearly bread-and-butter selections. And the £28m New Century Project at Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow was always going to be a contender.

The list was drawn up by a media-heavy jury headed by broadcaster Francine Stock, but missing from it are, for instance, Metaphor’s widely praised designs for Michelangelo: Closer to the Master at the British Museum with its ceiling projections, or Stanton Williams’ V&A’s Leonardo: Experiment, Experience and Design, with animations by Cosgrove Hall.

Last year, despite being fêted in the press and a recipient of awards from both Design Week and the D&AD, Casson Mann’s Churchill Museum, with its 18m Lifeline interactive table, was overlooked by the Gulbenkian jury in favour of a restoration of the ship SS Great Britain.

Does this mean, as a senior figure from the museum world has privately muttered, that the awards aren’t really about design? Certainly, design credits are not given out in the publicity. Or does it instead point to the growing schism in exhibition design between works, whether temporary or permanent, in which the actual design is conspicuous and often very technically ambitious, and a more traditional, curatorially led approach which views the visitor experience from a very different perspective?

Founding director of The Lighthouse in Glasgow and current head of Gray’s School of Art Stuart MacDonald says, ‘I don’t think it [the Gulbenkian prize] prioritises design enough.’ He believes the decisions may indicate a backlash against the more ostentatious design approaches taken.

Jane Wentworth, of Jane Wentworth Associates, carried out a confidential study of the awards for its organisers last year, and is a staunch defender. ‘The prize is a very good thing,’ she says. ‘There is a levelling effect of putting small museums on the same platform as big ones.’ And it considers design, she believes, ‘in the broadest sense – not just logos and graphics. It’s looking at layout, movement, how you find it, about the whole experience which starts from when you first look at it on the Internet, then try to find it in the town. What you think when you approach the outside of the building, the signage, a feeling when you have left that you have learnt something and had a good time. And design is a thread that runs through all this’.

However, she adds, ‘Design is only part of this,’ suggesting those exhibitions that are spectacular in pure design terms, but which haven’t won, may be communicating insufficiently well with their audience.

Jack Lohman, director of the Museum of London, points out the award confers enormous status and celebrity on a project, and the prize money will exceed the annual budget of some of the smaller projects. Many of those, he points out, will be being recognised for ‘exceeding expectations’ and this year’s list, he suggests, contains many ‘fantastic bits of design. But museums are not interested in design, but in objects, despite the UK still being the leaders in the world for exhibition design,’ he adds.

In April a shortlist of four will be announced before the jury makes its final selection in May. The debate, from a design perspective or otherwise, can then continue.

• Braintree District Museum, Warner Textile Archive, Essex. Designed by Objectives
• De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex. Designed by Eric Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff
• Horniman Aquarium, Horniman Museum and Gardens, London. Designed by Richard Williams at Buttress Fuller Alsop Williams together with in-house aquarium team
• Kelvingrove New Century Project, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow. Design by BDP, Event Communications and Fitch
• Kew Palace, Historic Royal Palaces, London. Design process led by Historic Royal Palaces in association with Purcell Miller Tritton and Metaphor
• Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, West Sussex. Design by Long & Kentish in association with Professor John Wilson
• Scotland & Medicine: Collections and Connections, Scotland. Design by Campbell & Co • Victoria & Albert Museum, Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art, London. Designed by Softroom
• Weston Park Museum, Sheffield Galleries & Museums, Sheffield. Exhibition design and graphics by Red Man Design
• Prostitution: What’s Going On? exhibition at the Women’s Library, London Metropolitan University, London. Graphics designed by Marc & Anna, 3D design by Battle Cruiser

2006 Brunel’s SS Great Britain, Great Western Dockyard, Bristol
2005 The Big Pit, Blaenafon, Wales
2004 The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh
2003 National Centre for Citizenship and the Law, Nottingham

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