Going Underground! Big Pit Wins £100,000 Gulbenkian Prize

By David Prudames | 26 May 2005
  • News
  • Archived article
Shows a photograph of a Lady Cobham handing Peter Walker from the Big National Mining Museum of Wales a silver bowl. They are accompanied by Sir Richard Sykes and Kerry Thompson from Big Pit.

Sir Richard Sykes, chair of the judges (left), and Lady Cobham (centre) congratulate Peter Walker and Kerry Thompson from Big Pit. © 24 Hour Museum.

Big Pit, the National Mining Museum of Wales, has won the 2005 Gulbenkian Prize for Museum of the Year. The new Culture Minister, David Lammy, present at the prize announcement, told 24 Hour Museum he was pleased to support the award on one of his first engagements as minister.

Now in its third year, the Gulbenkian Prize rewards and celebrates the innovation and imagination at work in the UK’s museums and galleries.

Open to all institutions be they huge, tiny, big-budget or small scale the award offers the chance to win £100,000 making it the largest single arts prize in this country.

In 2005 stiff competition from fellow finalists Coventry Transport Museum, Locomotion: the National Railway Museum at Shildon and the Time and Tide Museum of Great Yarmouth Life was beaten off by the National Mining Museum of Wales, Big Pit.

Shows a photograph of Peter Walker speaking at the Gulbenkian Prize ceremony.

Peter Walker, Big Pit Keeper and Mine Manager, dedicated the award to the staff back at Blaenafon who "make it such a special place." © 24 Hour Museum.

Speaking immediately following the announcement of the award, Peter Walker, Keeper and Mine Manager at Big Pit said: "Just being shortlisted has been a great experience and just like all the others we have milked it for all it's worth."

He went on to describe winning against such good competition as proof that, "Big Pit has finally come of age as a national museum. It's a bit of prestige and a pat on the back is very welcome - but the £100,000 is very welcome too."

shows a photograph of a man in orange overalls handling a museum artefact which appears to be a lamp

The Big Pit includes a surface museum - home to many valuable artefacts. © Big Pit National Mining Museum of Wales.

Sir Richard Sykes, chairman of the Gulbenkian judges and rector of Imperial College London added: "Any one of our four finalists could have been a worthy winner of this year’s Gulbenkian Prize for Museum of the Year but Big Pit offers an exceptional emotional and intellectual experience."

"It tells the individual stories of its community better than any museum I have visited and makes you contemplate the scale, and even the cruelty, of our industrial past which inspired a spirit of camaraderie and pride."

shows a museum mannequin dressed in miners wear of the early to mid twentieth century (flat cap and jacket).

The main exhibition space tells the history of the mines and of the communities that grew up around them from the earliest days to the miners’ strikes and pit closures in the 1980s. © Big Pit National Mining Museum of Wales.

Big Pit, located in a former coal mine at Blaenafon in South Wales, has been open to the public since 1983. Visitors can venture underground, just as working miners would have done, and experience the dark, damp and confined conditions.

However, until 2001, lack of funding meant that many of the buildings on the surface were left untouched and out of bounds to the public. A period of closure, during which a £7 million redevelopment was undertaken, then followed and in February 2004 it reopened.

shows a photograph of a man and a child wearing hardhats and peering into a pit lamp

Former miners lead the trips down into the original mine. © Big Pit National Mining Museum of Wales.

Now the public can visit all of the former colliery buildings, including the pithead baths, the winding engine house and the blacksmith’s workshop. All have been restored and cleverly animated by the sound of past miners at work.

The pithead baths were the first baths to be installed at the site and date back to 1939. They currently house the main exhibition space where the history of the mines is explored and the story of the communities that grew up around them from the earliest days to the miners’ strikes and pit closures in the 1980s is told.

shows a dramatic colour shot of a pit shaft showing the cables and lift cage descending down the shaft

Visitors to Big Pit are lowered down a 90 metre (300 feet) deep mine shaft © Big Pit National Mining Museum of Wales.

All this and the underground tour. Led by former miners, visitors are lowered down the 90 metre (300 feet) deep mine shaft in the dark subterranean passageways past the pit ponies’ stables and along the tracks of the coal trucks.

Mr Walker dedicated the Gulbenkian award to all the staff at Big Pit saying: "it is them who make it such a special place to visit. Thanks very much to the judges for making the right decision and thanks to the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation - and try saying that when you're dying for a pint!"

Shows a photograph of staff from Big Pit standing on stage at the Gulbenkian prize ceremony with Lady Cobham, Richard Sykes and a representative of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

The Winners! © 24 Hour Museum.

The judges highlighted the simple yet captivating way Big Pit recounts the story of the people of the South Wales coalfield, while keeping the memory of British coal alive, particularly for those generations born after the closure of the mines.

In its connection with social and working heritage the ethos of Big Pit was echoed by the other Gulbenkian contenders on the shortlist announced in January this year.

As well the other finalists, all of which address our industrial or working past, the list included the National Trust’s Back to Backs project in Birmingham which restored the last remaining courtyard of Victorian working class housing in the city.

Underlining the significance of Britain’s industrial, working and social heritage, the Gulbenkian Prize has, this year, offered a fascinating cross section of a growing area of museum work.

"All our finalists clearly show that museums today are not solely about displaying objects," explained Sir Richard Sykes, "but are about the exposition of history, told with real passion alongside a commitment to a community’s heritage."

Shows a photograph of the new culture minister, David Lammy, speaking at the Gulbenkian Prize ceremony.

The new Culture Minister David Lammy told the gathered crowd, "museums and art galleries have a huge social purpose that we must treasure, support and encourage." And, with a nod to Liverpool Football Club's heroics the previous evening in Istanbul, added: "If anyone could exhibit Steven Gerrard's boot I would be ever so grateful." © 24 Hour Museum.

Speaking to the 24 Hour Museum, the new Culture Minister, David Lammy explained that both public and media interest in the Gulbenkian Prize demonstrate the growing success of the museum sector.

"You can see in the shortlist of museums that were selected the range and breadth, the innovation and imagination," he said, "as the new culture minister I want to support and encourage that."

Having been in his position a matter of weeks Lammy explained how many people have shown their approval of the new job title: "Minister for Culture, that represents the full breadth of the job: linking the arts, museums, galleries, archives and libraries," he said.

"This is something we should be proud of, confident about and should advocate not just regionally, but nationally and internationally."

Previous winners of the competition include the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh for Landform - part sculpture, part garden, part land-art – and the National Centre for Citizenship and the Law at the Galleries of Justice in Nottingham.

As well as a cheque for a whopping £100,000 winners each receive an enamelled silver bowl designed by award-winning metalwork artist, Vladimir Böhm.

  • Back to top
  • | Print this article
  • | Email this article
  • | Bookmark and Share


  • 1 mile
  • 2 miles
  • 3 miles
  • 4 miles
  • 5 miles
  • 10 miles
  • 20 miles
  • 50 miles
  • Any time
  • Today
  • This week
  • This month
  • This year