(Above) Peter the Polar Bear is a star exhibit at the Ulster Museum
The Ulster Museum’s, Belfast’s 81-year-old heritage epicentre which reopened with a six-metre long skeleton of an edmontosaurus and an 800-pound stuffed polar bear in a £17 million overhaul last year, has pledged to play a "meaningful role" at the heart of a "changing society" in Northern Ireland after winning art's biggest award, the £100,000 Art Fund Prize.
The new-look venue, which has become the country's biggest tourist attraction since relaunching in October 2009 with three storeys of galleries, displays and learning zones in its listed building, beat Oxford's Ashmolean Museum, Blists Hill Victorian Town in Shropshire and Coventry's Herbert Art Gallery and Museum to secure a "humbling" victory.
Tim Cooke and accomplices from
the Ulster Museum celebrate their win
at the ceremony
"Rejuvenating the Museum has been a deeply rewarding and purposeful experience coinciding with a remarkable period of change in Northern Ireland's history," said Tim Cooke, Director of National Museums Northern Ireland.
"The public appetite for the new space and for engagement with our collections has been huge – as evidenced by the record visitor numbers and the massive level of support for the public vote element of The Art Fund Prize.
"This is the first time in Northern Ireland’s history that a prestigious cultural prize of this nature has been awarded to an institution in the region. This prize will encourage us as we endeavour to play a meaningful role at the heart of our changing society."
Announcing the result in a ceremony at the Royal Institute of British Architects' London headquarters, Chair of the Judges Kirsty Young said the panel had been "moved and invigorated" by their visit to Belfast.
Organisers from Blists Hill said they stood in "exalted company"
"Here is a museum which shows how much can be achieved," she declared, praising organisers for creating "a lasting legacy".
"We were impressed by the interactive learning spaces on each level that are filled with objects which visitors are encouraged to touch and explore, and by how the museum's commitment to reaching all parts of its community is reflected in the number and diversity of its visitors.
"The transformed Ulster Museum is an emblem of the confidence and cultural rejuvenation of Northern Ireland."
Art Fund Director Stephen Deuchar called the centre "a brilliant example of a museum that is passionate about its public."
"The redevelopment is stunning, capturing its visitors' minds and hearts with exceptional creative flair," he said, applauding the four finalists.
"It's been an extraordinarily strong year and a stirring reminder of the wealth of culture, history, beauty, life and science in museums across the UK."
Officials at Blists Hill, an open-air site which is one of 10 attractions in the Ironbridge Gorge scheme, were magnanimous in defeat.
Broadcaster Kirsty Young announced the results at RIBA's London base
"While it would have been wonderful to win this amazing award, my colleagues and I are delighted that we stand amongst such exalted company in the finals of the most prestigious museum competition in the country," reflected Barrie Williams, Chairman of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust.
"It is a remarkable achievement that the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust has got to this stage and it is testament to the hard work of the staff, volunteers, trustees, funders and the local community, who have all contributed in transforming Blists Hill Victorian Town into a world-class museum.
"The line up of finalists clearly demonstrates how museums have transformed their thinking and now understand the importance of presenting their collections in a dynamic and exciting fashion."