Experience Barnsley is a finalist in Art Fund’s Museum of the Year 2021 award

Since it was first established in 2013, Experience Barnsley Museum and Discovery Centre has continued to challenge and change perceptions about Barnsley by bringing to light its fascinating social history through a series of artefacts, stories and fantastic family experiences.

Throughout the pandemic, the team behind Barnsley’s unique museum dedicated to the town’s history and people has gone above and beyond their call of duty, proving their role as a community cornerstone extends much further than the walls of the Portland stone Town Hall where the museum is based.

For its outstanding levels of engagement and impact via their digital activity and outreach programme, Experience Barnsley Museum and Discovery Centre is a finalist for the Art Fund Museum of the Year 2021 award, the world’s biggest museum prize which will see the overall winner awarded £100,000 and the remaining four finalists given £15,000 each.

But the Museum of the Year award isn’t all about the incredible prize. It champions local museums and galleries on a national stage, shining the spotlight on the originality and creativity of museums of all kinds and sizes from every part of the UK. The award celebrates exceptional museums, galleries and historic houses, recognises imaginative work, and inspires more people to engage.

Experience Barnsley has been commended for how it reacted to the pandemic, shifting their focus solely online while the museum’s doors remained closed for many months. The curatorial team have worked hard to digitise their service by offering online exhibitions and events, YouTube wellbeing videos, a regular podcast, and interesting blogs to continue to engage with the local communities and schools. Their online jigsaws were played by people worldwide, as far away as Japan and New Zealand, and their virtual archaeological festival was attended by hundreds of people.

As well as being innovators of art and culture, they also put communities at the very heart of what they do, becoming an outreach team to connect with and support vulnerable groups and individuals within the town. The museum team worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic, making community visits to the isolated, sending care packs to children in receipt of free school meals, loaning computers to those in need, providing care homes with archive footage, and giving out thousands of care packages.

Had it not been for the generosity of the people of the borough who donated or shared centuries-old artefacts, documents and stories, then Experience Barnsley may never have come to fruition. So, the team knew they wanted to be there, whether physically or digitally, for the people of the borough and those further afield.

Experience Barnsley is the first ever social history museum dedicated to Barnsley and its people – representing its past, present and future.

Before it was established in 2013, remnants and relics from Barnsley’s past had found their way to museums and archives in neighbouring towns. But the donations received enabled the Barnsley Museums team to piece the town’s rich history back together and trace its timeline from pre-historic times to the 21st century.

Throughout the museum are displays, cabinets and interactive elements which highlight the many communities’ contributions to the town, from work to leisure and family life. Everything that is so special about the town is represented, from industry and heritage to sport and science, and not forgetting stars of stage and screen.

Just some of the items on display include rare archaeological finds, Roman coins, football memorabilia, a bike from the legendary Arthur Hirst pie shop, and even rides salvaged from the old Barnsley market carousel.

Last year, while the doors to visitors remained closed, the museum underwent a huge redisplay to showcase the donations that have continued to be offered to the museum. Along with hundreds of never-before-seen objects, the museum’s collection has been remounted with more accessible labels and new LED lighting to preserve the rare finds.

One of the most fascinating finds in the new collection is an ancient stone head that the museums’ team is still trying to date. It was found near Holyrood Church in the town and could date back to as far as the Iron Age due to its primitive appearance. The team believe it could be one of the earliest depictions of a face in Barnsley, but it’s been named after a famous face from Penistone in the form of England football star, John Stones.

Other items include the clocking in machine from Barnsley Main Colliery, a collection of Kes memorabilia including a taxidermy kestrel, and an epergne glass from the Victorian era which had been laying unidentified in a cupboard until a local heritage activist researched and discovered it. The stunning red design was made by Barnsley’s famous Wood Brothers glassworks and was showcased at Prince Albert’s Great Exhibition in 1851 to celebrate industrial technology and design. At that time, the only way to make the distinctive red colour was to add gold to the glass during manufacturing.

As well as the permanent and changing displays, Experience Barnsley has also hosted some fascinating exhibitions over the years, all of which have been inspired by the items within their collection. There have been exhibitions about Barnsley Co-operative Society, the coal mining industry, the two world wars, what life was like growing up in the 1980s, and even a Star Wars themed exhibition.

Currently, there is an exhibition dedicated to Barnsley’s most famous inventor, Joseph Bramah, called The Oldest Fire Engine in Town. Until 9th October, you can see this incredibly rare example of Bramah’s fire pump dating from 1791, thought to be the only one still in existence, which was once used by the Earl of Strafford at Wentworth Castle. Without Bramah’s invention of the hydraulic pump, there would be no lifts or aeroplanes. But he also invented the beer pump and toilet flush which are perhaps even more important technologies we couldn’t live without…

Seeing success, memories, people and places represented in this way has given the people of the borough a huge sense of civic pride to the town and winning the Museum of the Year award would reinforce the importance of this inimitable institution.

Experience Barnsley is one of five museums shortlisted for the Museum of the Year Award. The other finalists are: The Centre for Contemporary Art Derry, Londonderry; Firstsite, Colchester; Thackray Museum of Medicine, Leeds; and Timespan, Helmsdale. The overall winner will be announced later in September.

To find out more visit www.experience-barnsley.com