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Craven Museum at Skipton Town Hall is a Finalist for Art Fund Museum of the Year 2024

Craven Museum at Skipton Town Hall is a Fnalist for Art Fund Museum of the Year 2024 Image courtesy of Skipton Town Hall. Soundscapes, an installation by Ben Crick and Michaela French at Craven Museum / Skipton Town Hall. Photo: © Jonny Walton for Skipton Camerata.
What's on
July 2024
Reading time 5 Minutes

Craven Museum at Skipton Town Hall is one of five finalists for Art Fund Museum of the Year 2024 (the world's largest museum prize)

Living North find out why this small museum deserves to win.

At the heart of the local community, Craven Museum sits within the Grade II-listed Skipton Town Hall, a modern multi-arts cultural hub. The venue holds an exhibition gallery, historic concert hall and education and community spaces which all work in unison with the museum. The museum itself focuses on the local area, displaying artefacts including archaeology, textiles, fine art and literature, with engaging content for visitors of all ages.

‘The museum was set up in 1928 by a local group of history enthusiasts and people in the community who had, over the years, been gathering together items themselves to create a personal collection – things from excavations they’d been undertaking and particularly more archaeological finds,’ says Jenny Hill, lead museums curator at North Yorkshire Council. ‘They came together to create Craven Museum and its 100th anniversary is coming up in the next couple of years. The collection was originally kept at Skipton Library, but in the 1970s it was moved to a new purpose-built home at Skipton Town Hall and that’s where it’s been ever since.’

Photo: © Hydar Dewachi / Art Fund 2024 Photo: © Hydar Dewachi / Art Fund 2024

Founding collections for the museum included the Elbolton Cave finds, Roman artefacts from Elslack (Olenacum) Roman Fort and a fossil collection. Now the museum cares for a treasure trove of around 60,000 objects representing millions of years of Craven’s history, it’s one of only a few places where the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays is on permanent display, and you can also browse furniture by Kilburn-born master craftsman Robert Thompson (better known as the Mouseman, as he a carved mouse on almost every piece).

‘We have an exhibition gallery within Skipton Town Hall and exhibitions change three or four times a year in that space,’ Jenny says. ‘We try to reserve one spot a year to work with community groups so people can apply to exhibit in our gallery space. In the past this has involved working with local schools, health and wellbeing charities, and young photographers. We also try to show work from contemporary artists as well as items from the museum’s collection. For example, last year we did an exhibition on contemporary craft working with crafts that might be seen as traditionally heritage crafts (like embroidering skills and basket weaving) and looking at how we could see that in the museum’s collection and how people are still using them in the present day. Making those links between the past and the future is really important to us,’ continues Jenny. ‘We also have the community case in the museum itself which local individuals and heritage groups can apply to use and we offer as much curatorial advice as they would like. That’s a really lovely spot in the museum for people to share what’s important to them. It’s really integral to the museum, it’s right in the middle and it’s something we definitely want people to come and see when they’re here.’

The museum’s staff always focus on the community and accessibility and believe, as a small and local museum, Craven can lead the way in innovation of access and community engagement. ‘In 2018 and 2019 we started work on our redevelopment project,’ explains Jenny. ‘Made possible thanks to a National Lottery Heritage Fund grant, we really needed to update our facilities, particularly in terms of access. The museum used to be up a steep flight of stairs, with no lift, so we really wanted to bring the museum down to the ground floor to make it more accessible and more visible for visitors. That was really at the heart of our redevelopment project.

‘We were also looking at access to the collection, keeping nice simple labels and avoiding jargonistic content. We worked a lot with local community groups during the project to make sure we were showing themes and objects people were really interested in locally and that told the story of Craven really well, because as a local history museum the collections really tie into the Craven area of Yorkshire. We really wanted to tell the story of what Craven is and why people continue to live and work in the area.’

Between 2022 and 2023, 115 artists displayed their work in the museum's exhibition gallery, and eight community groups created displays in the community case. The museum welcomed 156,391 visitors during this time. The museum was recognised as the Kids in Museums Family Friendly Museum 2023 and Best Accessible Museum 2023, and it offered a programme of free and low-cost activities and events for families each day of the school holidays
last year.

‘Just because you’re a small team doesn’t mean you can’t achieve amazing things’

The Art Fund Museum of the Year award has a particular focus on community engagement and sustainable ways of working, and Craven Museum has been striving to work on these aspects. It joins four more shortlisted museums: Dundee Contemporary Arts, Manchester Museum, the National Portrait Gallery in London, and Young V&A at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The winning museum will be announced at a ceremony at the National Gallery in London on 10th July and will receive £120,000 (each of the four other finalists will receive £15,000).

‘We’re absolutely thrilled to have been shortlisted,’ says Jenny. ‘We were so excited when we got the news, we couldn’t believe it! I think it still hasn't quite sunk in now to be honest. For such a small team at a small venue it’s really important to us because it really recognises the work that small local museums do and the value they have in their community and for wider visitors as well. We’re a very small team in a council-run museum so to have the work that we do recognised by a national award is just amazing, and it’s really great in boosting the team’s morale. But hopefully it’ll also be inspiring other institutions by proving you can dream big, and just because you’re a small team doesn’t mean you can’t achieve amazing things.

‘It’s fantastic in terms of getting what we do out there and making people aware of it on a wider scale. It would also mean we could discuss how we could use the fund to increase our access work, continuing to work with local community groups and expanding our wellbeing programme and look at how we can continue to do work that makes a really positive impact. That would be amazing.’

Currently on display is Soundscapes (until 1st June) – an immersive installation in partnership with Skipton Camerata (Skipton Town Hall’s orchestra in residence). ‘They composed a new piece of music and filmed video footage of the Yorkshire Dales and its scenery,’ explains Jenny. ‘They built an amazing plywood dome and they’re projecting film footage into the dome and playing the compositions that they’ve put together over the top of it. It’s an amazing space and there are bean bags in there so you can lay down and really chill out.

‘We’re looking at working with emerging artists in the local area. We’ve had an open call for people who are right at the beginning of their artistic career and they can submit pieces of work to us which will go through a shortlisting process and we’ll put together an exhibition of that work which will be on display over the summer.’ Craven Museum will be also be celebrating The Festival of Archaeology 2024 with a family Dig & Discover Day in July, there’ll be theatre performances at the Town Hall this summer (including Alice in Wonderland and Horrible Histories: Rotten Royals) and children will love The Ultimate Bubble Show. The museum also hosts a programme of family-friendly activities throughout the year, including their free Make & Take craft sessions during school holidays. Pick up your free trail sheet for the kids to make the most of your visit.

Craven Museum is open Monday to Saturday (9.30am–4.30pm) and is free to enter.

Image courtesy of Skipton Town Hall © Stephen Garnett Image courtesy of Skipton Town Hall © Stephen Garnett
Photo: © Hydar Dewachi / Art Fund 2024 Photo: © Hydar Dewachi / Art Fund 2024

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