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Nick Merriman on Horniman's Museum of the Year win

Updated: Oct 1, 2023

It’s got 350,000 objects, a ton of musical instruments, an overstuffed 19th century taxidermy walrus, an aquarium, llamas, a butterfly house, and one of the very best views of any London museum (maybe even in the whole of South London). But if all that wasn’t enough, since July the Horniman Museum and Gardens in Lewisham has held the title of Art Fund Museum of the Year 2022 - and £100,000 in prize money.


Art Fund Museum of Year is the world’s largest museum prize. It celebrates the work of museums and galleries across the whole UK and the outstanding work they do. This year the Horniman faced competition from four other venues including the Story Museum in Oxford and the People’s History Museum in Manchester, but was ultimately crowned champion due to its work to completely reconfigure its programme following 2021’s pandemic, Black Lives Matter movement, and increasing urgency of the climate crisis.


The facade of the Horniman Museum showing the clock tower
The Horniman Museum and Gardens. Photo: @maxwellmuseums

So what’s it like to win the largest museum prize in the world? Well, this newsletter I better placed than anywhere to find out! So this week’s interview is with Nick Merriman, Chief Executive of Horniman since 2018. I ask him all about it, in addition to some of the most pressing issues facing the sector, from repatriation to the energy crisis.


 

Hello Nick! Congratulations on your Museum of the Year win. Has it sunk in yet?

Many thanks for this. We were delighted to be shortlisted for Art Fund Museum of the Year, but we really didn’t expect to win, given the other great candidates. So it was absolutely fantastic when we were revealed as winners live on the One Show at the Design Museum on 14 July. There’s a video of the small Horniman team who were present actually screaming with delight at the announcement! We were overwhelmed with congratulations in the days after, on social media, by email, and even by old fashioned letter and card. The latter were rather touching, including one from a lady who remembered visiting in the late 1940s with her grandmother.


Why did you want to apply for Museum of the Year?

We’d talked for a while about applying, as I felt that the Horniman does incredible work which didn’t have the profile it deserves. It’s the largest museum prize in the world, and the biggest arts prize in the UK, so that, together with the extraordinary media profile you gain from being shortlisted (and then winning) was a great incentive. And of course the £100,000 prize is very useful as well. We applied this year because we felt that what we’d achieved in the previous 12 months was really worth celebrating.


Tell me a bit about the process and how it works.

You apply online, setting out how last year’s achievements showed imagination and creativity; how they made a difference, and how you will build on them. The five judges review the applications and then invite a longlist to give five-minute presentations summarising their bid, and to answer questions. We were lucky enough to be one of five shortlisted museums, with an announcement and lots of publicity, which is excellent. The crunch comes at the awards ceremony itself, live on the One Show with an audience of several million. Each of the shortlisted museum directors have to prepare a brief speech in case they win. When the name was read out, I went on autopilot and walked on stage to receive the award, rather stunned.


Why do you think you won?

I can only quote Art Fund: “This outstanding museum is a leading example of bringing collections to life through its imaginative work with local communities, young people and artists… the Horniman is setting the agenda for how a museum can reinvent itself through powerful ideas.”


The Horniman is returning ownership of the Museum's Benin Bronzes to Nigeria, but has expressed an interest in retaining some objects on loan. Why?

The largest minority ethnic community in our borough, Lewisham, is the people of Nigerian descent. When we were consulting on the future of the Benin material, the consensus of the community was that the objects should be returned to Nigeria as they had originally been looted. However, there was also a clear view that it would be desirable if some objects could be loaned back to the Horniman, both so that community members could view their heritage, and for the education of general visitors. We are currently in discussion with colleagues in Nigeria about this, and hope to come to an agreement before the end of the year.


Are you worried about this winter - and are you planning to cut the Museum's energy use to save money?

Like all organisations, we are concerned about the hikes in energy costs. As part of our Climate and Ecology Action Plan we have a long term strategy of energy reduction and decarbonisation, so we need to accelerate this work. We are lucky to procure our energy through Crown Commercial Services, which bulk buys in advance on behalf of the public sector, so our energy costs aren’t rising as fast as others. We wait to see what the new government’s announced support for businesses will mean for us. The situation is still very fluid and much depends on how long the war in Ukraine lasts, but there is no doubt that the immediate period will be a challenging one.


And what is the financial outlook for the Museum, with growing inflation and the cost of living crisis? Is it worse than the impact of the pandemic?

Having got through Covid, with invaluable support from the government, it’s difficult to be dealing with a second ‘once in a lifetime’ crisis. If inflation rates and the consequent cost of living crisis continue at this level for some time, we will certainly find it challenging. We typically raise circa 30% of our income ourselves and if visitors spend less, then this will be reduced. We’re also fundraising for a major capital project, Nature + Love, which will rely on financial support from a range of donors. However, we are still seeing a positive recovery coming out of the pandemic in terms of visitor numbers and spend, and fundraising from trusts and foundations remains strong. I’m confident that we will be able to get through this.


May next year marks your five year anniversary leading the Horniman. What have been the highs and lows during that time?

The high is an easy one: winning the Museum of the Year award. Within that, I’m proud of the work we are doing to diversify our audiences, acknowledge our colonial legacy, and engage visitors in a positive movement for climate action. Seeing, for example, young Black audiences flocking to the Horniman to hear our Resident Musicians play works inspired by our musical instrument collections has been really rewarding. There haven’t been many lows (I’m not that kind of person) but closing the Museum abruptly in the first Covid lockdown and seeing our income fall off a cliff, was certainly challenging.


Tell me about your new exhibition on David McKee.

It’s called ‘ELMER and Friends: The Colourful World of David McKee’. It’s a major retrospective of his work, including original illustrations for the 30-year-old Elmer the Patchwork Elephant, one of the most widely read children’s book series of all time. It is aimed at families with young children. I used to read Elmer stories to my own children, but I’m of an age where I’m more of a fan of Mr Benn, also drawn by David McKee. I’m glad to say that Mr Benn appears in the exhibition as well.


Finally, what will you be spending the £100,000 Museum of the Year prize money on?

We’re going to spend it on two things. The first is to provide free outdoor learning experiences in the school holidays for local children on free school meals, giving them something inspiring to do, and providing a nutritious lunch. The second is to continue a programme of resident musicians that we ran last year and was one of the reasons we won Museum of the Year. We invite young musicians, mostly from minority backgrounds, to use our global collection of musical instruments as inspiration to create new work, which is then showcased at the Horniman. We’ll also continue the resident promoters’ programme, which mentors young people who are interested in developing a career in the music industry.


ELMER and Friends: The Colourful World of David McKee is open at the Horniman Museum now, until 16 April 2023. Book tickets here.

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