The Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, which reopened to the public in December 2011 after a £24 million redevelopment, has had its ambitious transformation rewarded with this year's Art Fund Prize.
© Philip Halling, geograph.org.uk
In a ceremony at the British Museum, the local authority venue beat off competition from a strong shortlist of refurbished museums and galleries, including the Hepworth in Wakefield, the Watts Gallery in Surrey and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh.
More than 175,000 people have visited the Devon museum since it reopened in December following a four-year closure and multi-million pound refurbishment. New displays showcase a collection telling the story of Exeter and Devon from the prehistoric to the present.
Internationally important world cultures and natural history collections also tell a story of global exploration and collecting in the 18th and 19th centuries.
It was the reinterpretation of this collection that led judges to praise the museum for its "ambition and imagination" and for an "innovative curatorial approach" which has changed the way audiences interact with and understand its collection.
Chair of Judges, Lord Smith of Finsbury, described the Royal Albert Memorial Museum as "quite simply a magical place", with "some of the most intelligently considered displays on view in any museum in the UK".
"Every exhibit delights with a new surprise, and provokes with a new question," he added.
"At a time when local authority museums in particular are in such danger, this brilliant achievement proves how daring, adventurous and important such institutions can be.”
The museum was founded in 1868 in memory of the Prince Regent, pursuing his visions of art, science, design and technology being united under one roof by amassing more than a million objects.
“The redevelopment has been a labour of love,” said Pete Edwards, the leader of Exeter Council.
“It shows what can be done when popular support is backed by the local council, aided by central government and the Heritage Lottery Fund.
“Together we’ve taken a great museum and made it even better. I hope it’s a source of inspiration for all the far-flung parts of Britain which have the ambition and drive to compete with the best.”
Viscountess Cobham, the Chair of The Museum Prize Trust, called the redevelopment project “a truly wonderful success”.
“It is a most deserving winner of the tenth prize,” she said.
“It is a shining example of the innovation and imagination which makes our museum sector so special.”
The Whitworth Art Gallery and Leicestershire County Council Heritage and Arts Service were also announced as the joint winners of the £10,000 Clore Award for Museum Learning 2012.