The Art Fund Prize 2009 interview: The Wedgwood Museum, Stoke-on-Trent

By Ben Miller | 07 April 2009
A picture of The Art Fund Prize logo

The superb new Wedgwood Museum in Stoke-on-Trent has been showered with praise since opening in the ceramic heartland at the end of 2008. Director Gaye Blake Roberts, who leads a team of four full-time and six part-time members of staff in keeping the centre open seven days a week, tells Culture24 why being longlisted for the Art Fund Prize makes all the hard work worthwhile.

A picture of cases showing exhibits in a gallery

What was it like when you found out you’d been named on the longlist?

We were absolutely thrilled, really excited. Being a brand new state-of-the-art museum we felt very strongly that it should be included, but having applied we couldn’t tell. We were all so excited, I can’t tell you. It was a real treat to think that somebody thought as highly of the museum as we did.

The whole museum has been a team effort, all the way through from day one, and so to have that recognised on the longlist was really fantastic. It’s been very busy and we have had quite a few people who have visited as a result of seeing the news. During the period of the competition Art Fund members get free admission – that could be an incentive, or it could be just that they now realise we are open. It is a tremendous honour for everybody involved to get this far. Everybody’s really excited about it.

How important is your role as a heritage centre for pottery in the Midlands in light of the difficulties [the company went into administration in January 2009] Wedgwood has faced?

Having been packed up for ten years it’s difficult to get that message out to people that we are now open and the problems with the company have not helped us, although we are financially and operationally totally independent – we’re a charitable trust. People half-read an article and the perception is that we’re closed. We know as much as is in the current press.

If the ceramic industry in north Staffordshire is ever to be revived it will be based on its heritage and history, which makes the displays and collections here of even greater relevance not only to the creative arts but also to expanding people’s knowledge. The museum collection is not just about pots, it’s very much about the people who made the pots, and one of the great strengths of this collection is the large amount of detail about the workers which we’ve included in the gallery.

People are beginning to think ‘I wonder if my auntie or uncle has got any relevance to this’, so we’re getting an increased amount of genealogical requests.

Talk us through the project behind the new building.

The museum was actually founded in 1906 and we’ve always had a small museum until ten years ago, when the company rebuilt the visitor centre, and at that point a very high percentage of the collections went into storage. We then set about raising the funds and we’ve been superbly supported by the likes of the Heritage Lottery Fund, Advantage West Midlands and the company.

We’ve had things like open competitions by the architects – what we’ve tried to do all the way through the building of the museum has been to use local people wherever possible.

What has the reaction been like?

Since the collections have been in place and we’ve opened the doors it’s been a revelation to people, because of course they’re seeing things they remember. The feedback from the visitors has been really positive, they really do love it, and where we’ve had initial teething problems we’ve had understanding.

We had a tiny painting that is in fact a tiger which we called a leopard for some inexplicable reason, but generally it’s gone very smoothly due to the dedication of the interior designers, builders, architects and my colleagues. Actually seeing those designs which we’d looked at on paper coming alive was wonderful.

The greatest satisfaction was to see all the wonderful collections cleaned and put in display cases which are superbly lit. The cases are absolutely magnificent and have made the pots the primary focus.

How was your visit from the judges?

It was a bit nervewracking, but they were wonderful, really interesting to talk to. Obviously they’re very non-committal but we felt very gratified that they had come. It was particularly nice to see Lord Puttnam and Grayson Perry and people like that, particularly as Grayson Perry is a potter, so he had a natural affinity with the collections.

They went round the galleries on their own and were extremely gracious in allowing us to do a photocall with the local press, which has given us additional publicity.

How confident are you of winning?

I’ve no idea, I’ve no feel for it at all. I would absolutely love to be shortlisted, it really would be the icing on the cake for us. All the longlisted candidates are hugely important collections with high reputations, and we wish them as much luck as we would ourselves.

What will you spend the money on if you win?

We haven’t tried to sort of second guess that, but if we did we have a phase two plan for the wonderful collections of non-Wedgwood ceramics that we have, and I suspect that it would possibly be used as match funding to raise funds to actually furnish the second phase, pieces which are still in storage.

The nice thing is that all the services are just short of what would be phase two – it’s a fit-out cost, not a construction cost. If we won the Prize it would certainly be the tipping point to really go out and aggressively campaign for the funding to do the second half.

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.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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