Museum that tells story of coal wins biggest arts prize

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The Independent Online

Britain's biggest arts prize has been won by a former coal mine. The colliery in south Wales, which once produced 100,000 tons of coal a year, has been awarded £100,000 for providing visitors with an "exceptional emotional and intellectual experience".

The mine in Blaenavon, now called Big Pit, has won the coveted Gulbenkian prize for Museum of the Year.

The writer and broadcaster Joan Bakewell, one of the seven judges, said that she and her colleagues were "blown away" by the prize-winner's effectiveness in portraying the industry and the people who worked in it.

"It is a most exciting place to go. It is an enthralling story, brilliantly told. It is a well-organised, intriguing museum. It was a most exciting visit. You can take your children, your aunties, geriatrics - they will welcome you all.

"There's no clashing modernity about it. There's no formica. It's all coherently designed. They have been fastidious. We were absolutely blown away."

Ms Bakewell said that there was no false sentimentality about the museum either. It examines in detail the national strike of 1984-85, which south Wales miners supported with unrivalled solidarity.

Before the strike there were around 25,000 coal miners in Wales; now there are around 500 - some 400 of whom work at Tower colliery, a co-operative near Hirwaun 15 miles to the west of Big Pit.

The National Museums of Wales now employ 150 more people in the Principality than coal mining. In 1947 nearly 115,000 men earned their living in the industry.

Sir Richard Sykes, chairman of the Gulbenkian judges, said that any one of the four finalists would have been a worthy winner. The three others on the shortlist were Coventry Transport Museum; Time and Tide, the Museum of Great Yarmouth Life; and Locomotion: the National Railway Museum at Shildon.

But he added: "Big Pit offers an exceptional emotional and intellectual experience. It tells the 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."

Big Pit, or Pwll Mawr as it is in Welsh - the adjective being placed after the noun - was first opened as a museum in 1983.

At one stage it was in danger of closing because of the high cost of maintaining it. The Welsh Assembly intervened and made it part of the National Museums and Galleries of Wales, in effect renationalising it. After £7m worth of redevelopment, Big Pit reopened in February 2004 and has since welcomed 140,000 visitors.

Part of the pit visit involves an underground tour, beginning with a ride in the "cage" that once took colliers to the bottom of the 300ft shaft. From there visitors are led by miners - they prefer not to be called ex-miners - along dark, dank tunnels, past stables that used to house pit ponies, to the old coalface.

Above ground the pithead baths, the canteen and the blacksmith's workshop have all been preserved and brought back to life with recordings of miners played in the background. The colliery's afterlife as a museum was a welcome, if strictly limited, boost to employment in an area in dire need of jobs. But for every former miner who gratefully accepted a job at the museum, there were others for whom coal mining was an experience that they would rather forget.