The Braid, named after the river running through its home in Ballymena, County Antrim, first opened its doors last year as an arts and civic centre and new home for the Mid-Antrim Museum. The stunning multi-purpose building plays host to a huge variety of cultural treats, from exhibition galleries to a conservation laboratory. William Blair, Museums Service Officer at Mid-Antrim Museums Service spoke to Culture24 about being promoted to the premier league of museums and galleries.
Picture courtesy The Braid
What was it like when you found out you'd been named on the longlist?
It’s been a massive boost for everyone involved in the Braid. It’s great to have that sort of external endorsement, that sort of external validation and recognition. A lot of people have worked really hard on the development of the Mid-Antrim Museum at the Braid.
To be the first museum from Northern Ireland to make the longlist is a distinction that we’ll always have on our CV.
The new building only opened last year, but the museum has been around for a while hasn’t it?
Yes we’ve come a long way from very small beginnings, and that’s the thing that is really quite unusual about this project - ten years ago we were working from a tiny museum in a former draper’s shop.
In a way we feel like we’ve been promoted from the Vauxhall Conference to somewhere in the higher echelons of the league. To be in the company of the likes of Kelvingrove, we’ve come a long way in a relatively short amount of time.
We operated out of temporary premises, a former postal sorting office, for six or seven years and now we’re in our new purpose built facility. It’s been a big step up for us and that presents us with some challenges in terms of scaling up our programmes, exhibitions and events in a way that is appropriate to the kind of facilities that we have now.
How did you get on with the judges when they visited?
They were all extremely personable and interested. Ballymena is a provincial town in Northern Ireland, it has a very definite sense of itself and of its local identity and I think they might have been surprised to find a very small council has been able to develop a cultural centre like the Braid.
We invited a range of local people to meet the judges for lunch - people we’ve worked with in our outreach programmes, people we’ve collaborated with from the local arts community and others from the local community history partnership.
We felt it was important that the judges had a chance to meet and interact with people that are actually using the facilities and services, rather than just listening to the views of the staff, because we’re obviously biased!
I think that they seemed to enjoy the additional understanding and perspectives you can gain by talking to local people who are the users of the service.
What has the reaction been like within the museum and from the public?
We’ve gained a lot of publicity on the back of the Art Fund Prize. It’s the kind of publicity you can’t buy, certainly not with my marketing budget!
That kind of exposure - to have a piece in the paper where David Puttnam is saying very positive things about the museum, as well as coverage from BBC Northern Ireland and other local programs - it’s all been very beneficial for us.
The council are really pleased, obviously they’ve made a very significant investment in the arts centre and it’s to their eternal credit that they’ve prioritised culture in the way that they have.
It is a signature building and I think that people do see Ballymena in a slightly different light because of the Braid. We want to deliver some real benefit in both social and economic terms.
How confident are you of winning?
Well, somebody’s got to win it. I think everybody’s pleased to be on the longlist, and we certainly feel honoured to have made it on there. I think we’ve got quite a well-rounded museum, very public facing and community focused.
We feel confident about what we do, but we’re still a work in process. Put it this way – we’re pleased to make the longlist, we’d be delighted to make the shortlist, and we’d probably need a doctor with a defibrillator in the room to jump-start us if we won it, you know?
What do you think you might spend the money on if you do win?
We’d like to keep it invested in our community programs and our programming generally. We are in a situation now where the bottom has fallen out of the economy, and that affects everybody. The mood-music has certainly changed and it would be great to have that sort of investment.
We know now the kinds of events we could develop that would work really well within the museum. We’d quite like to use the funds in a public facing way that benefits our visitors and the local community.
Who do you think should win the Art Fund prize 2009? Tell the judges who you think should win and why by visiting the Art Fund Prize website. You can also add comments - a selection of which are regularly added to the website.
Read about more of the museums on the Art Fund Prize 2009 longlist on Culture24.