When Michael Pinsky was asked to create an art project linking metro stations in Newcastle to the fort at Hadrian's Wall, his installation included "No Smoking" signs in Latin and English. Even the local job centre was renamed "Forum Venalicium" - meaning slave market.
The artist's wit has now given the Tyne and Wear Museums' project a chance to win the £100,000 Gulbenkian prize for Museum of the Year.
The Pontis project was one of 13 museum ventures named yesterday on the shortlist for the Gulbenkian, founded last year and the largest single arts award in Britain. More than 50 museums put forward nominations.
In a revival of last year's battle between the Davids and Goliaths of the museum world, this year the National Gallery's £500,000 Titian exhibition will compete with the Prescot Museum's exploration of Merseyside history by children and former factory workers, which cost just £4,000.
The judges will name four finalists in the course of the next two months and announce the winner in London on 11 May.
Loyd Grossman, the judging panel chairman, said the range of projects was "exemplary". He added: "I was more than impressed by the quality and variety and creativity that all the entrants showed."
Leeds has two potential winners on its hands in the Royal Armouries, for an exhibition about weapons and armour made for children from the 15th to the 19th centuries, and the Henry Moore Institute for an exhibition on 20th-century British sculpture.
Scotland has two contenders and Wales one. The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh was shortlisted for Landform by Charles Jencks, a part-sculpture, part-garden project in the area around the gallery. The Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow worked with Amnesty International and the Scottish Refugee Council on Sanctuary, using contemporary art to explore the plight of asylum-seekers.
The Pembrokeshire Museum Service produced a travelling exhibition on another marginalised group, the local Romany Gypsy. It took a traditional horse-drawn wooden wagon, or vardi, on the road with an exhibition of Romany culture.
The other shortlisted projects were: Thinktank, in Birmingham, for its Futures Gallery, a cutting-edge science museum including robots; Sutton House, the oldest domestic residence in the East End of London, for its celebration of Black History Month; the Museum of Antiquities, University of Newcastle, for Reticulum, which gave children the chance to handle artefacts and consult with museum staff by e-mail; the Clifton Park Museum, Rotherham, for a project with the Basic Skills Agency using heritage activities to improve literacy and numeracy; and Norton Priory Museum, Cheshire, for working with people with learning disabilities on a medieval herb garden.
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