National treasures: Britain's museums and galleries

Kirsty Young, chair of the judges of the Art Fund Prize for museums and galleries, celebrates the wealth of collections that can be enjoyed for free all around Britain
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

What I love about museums has changed radically, entirely in response to having two children. I now look for something different. When I go with my children I'm looking for space, something that engages them, and things we can enjoy together.

I went to a museum on my own for the first time in about seven years this weekend. When I go alone I like to focus on three or four works. Spending four hours in a museum working my way around a collection just doesn't work for me. I'm looking for excitement – and tranquillity. I like to be stimulated in my mind, but surrounded by space and quiet. I also like to be free from commercialism. Living in London, I'm confronted by commercialism at every turn. So I like the idea of being surrounded by walls and images that are not trying to sell me anything apart from ideas.

It's wonderful that museums and galleries in the UK are free. I took my daughter to the V&A the year before last to see the Jewellery Galleries; the idea that we could just walk in there together, without a barrier, was incredible to her, as we're so used to everything being a commercial exchange. I do believe free entry makes a difference to who is visiting our museums and why they're visiting them. As chair of judges of the Art Fund Prize, it has been wonderful to visit all sorts of institutions, and to observe the genuine cross-section of the public that visits them. I'm sure that would change if mandatory entry charges were introduced. When times are tight it would be a huge shame if free entry was to fall by the wayside.

Being chair of the judges of the Art Fund Prize is a truly exciting and a great responsibility. The sum of money involved is huge – £100,000. The prize is awarded in recognition of originality and excellence in a museum or gallery in the UK, and is the largest single arts prize in the country, sponsored by the eponymous charity which exists to help museums and galleries buy works of art.

It has been interesting to visit the 11 long-listed galleries, either alone or as a group. I went on a "secret squirrel visit" to one museum last weekend, and a gallery volunteer asked me, "If you like our museum can you vote for it?" and handed me a voting flyer. Being a judge I'd probably be precluded from taking part in the public vote. But it showed me that being long-listed really does make a difference to the people who work so hard for museums. For me, it's also a brilliant opportunity to spend more time in museums. Now I've got a reason to visit all these fabulous places, and call it "work".

If I could create a new museum anywhere in the UK, I would create a museum on the island of Iona. My second daughter is called Iona, and I chose her name partly because the Scottish colourists, who are among my favourite groups of painters, painted a lot of their pictures on the island of Iona. So I would curate an exhibition of Scottish colourist paintings there. If somebody wants to give me £25m, I'd use it wisely.

Kids these days think of museums as extremely interesting places where fabulous things happen, and I think that's because more museums and galleries engage children when they're really young. I'm grateful for that, because once kids think about museums as exciting places at a young age, when they're 12, 18 and 25 those connections have already been made. The main difficulty in taking children to museums is the lack of space. I try to take them early in the day. There's a spread in my daughters' ages – one is three and a half and the other is nine – so often my husband and I will split up and take one each. My daughter did a sleepover recently at the Science Museum, and next term she's doing one at another national museum. She doesn't think of museums as places where you have to shut up and be bored. For her they're a big treat. Recently I took my younger daughter Iona to explore the basement of the Science Museum where I found a place where she was able to play with water. It was a really fun discovery. That's one of the upsides of living in London with children – you have these incredible places, and they're free. Both my kids are forming quite an attachment to the museums of London, which is good thing. And to think that there are a further 1,800 museums and galleries across the UK; the wealth of culture and excitement across the land is unimaginable.

My earliest memory of a museum visit was with my grandfather, who was an amateur artist and did beautiful watercolours. I must have been about five or six. He took me to Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow – a beautiful, red sandstone building which sits in a handsome part of the city. I remember him explaining quite a lot about the building from the outside. The scale of it fired up my excitement. Everything seemed giant – these giant stone steps and giant colonnades. My grandfather led me through these beautiful corridors and kept saying to me "Come and see this", and I remember wondering what he was taking me to. We walked through these vaulted colonnades to an upstairs corridor and then at the end, spot lit, was this very dramatic painting. It was Christ of St John and the Cross by Salvador Dali, which is today immensely popular – in fact readers of the Herald newspaper voted it Scotland's favourite painting in 2005. I just remember staring at it, feeling as if the figure in the painting was real. Later on I worked as an au pair in Barcelona, and I made a trip just outside the city to the Dali museum in Figueres. So I think those early connections are important in the way they propel you to see related things.

It's wonderful when you stumble upon a museum by chance. That happened to me in Barcelona. I lived there for only six months and I made a stand-out discovery. Tucked away in the city's back streets, I happened upon the Picasso Museum, which is filled with the artist's early works. I had studied art and history of art A-level so I was familiar with his famous, more recent pieces, but I was fascinated to discover lesser known gems like his pastels from the early 1900s. Nowadays I travel to California a lot, and one of my favourite international museums is the Getty in Santa Monica. It's a really uplifting, tremendous piece of architecture, and the collection is spectacular. I went there for the first time last year with my husband, and I had only an hour and a half. I intend to go back soon and have a good look around.

Kirsty Young is chair of the judges for the Art Fund Prize for museums and galleries 2010. To vote for your favourite, visit This weekend is Love Your Museum Weekend