Following early positions at Historic England and the British Museum, Vanessa Wells moved to hold a variety of roles at the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Initially working on grant awards for the North East and Major Grant awards, she moved to manage the Collecting Cultures programme and support the Fund’s policy work for the museum, library, and archive sectors. Having had a longstanding involvement in managing the National Heritage Memorial Fund, Vanessa is now Head of NHMF and this forms the focus of her work.
The NHMF has given grants for the acquisition of such a variety of objects and artworks. How do you choose what to support?
We do have such a huge variety of objects! Obviously, we take expert advice on all our applications, and we have a panel of experts who help to advise us on cases where we get early approaches before the application stage, to help us to assess and prioritise which are those nationally important items.
We support the whole range of heritage, from museum items and collections, archaeological artefacts, archives, and built heritage to natural heritage and land. To give some examples, one of our acquisitions that has been in the public eye recently is the 19th-century Gwrych Castle in North Wales, which was the filming location at the end of last year for the reality television series I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! We supported that acquisition two years ago for the local trust who had been set up to safeguard the castle. We were so pleased that we were able to secure that, and the proceeds from the filming will really help the trust push forward with their longer-term plans for restoration and public access to the castle.
We fund industrial, maritime, and transport heritage, such as the acquisition of the locomotive the Flying Scotsman for the National Railway Museum in 2004. Rather more years ago, in some of our earliest grants starting in 1981, we funded the salvage, raising, and initial hull conservation of Henry VIII’s warship the Mary Rose.
There have also been many, many art acquisitions that we’ve helped fund, like Titian’s Diana and Actaeon for the National Gallery and the National Galleries of Scotland, and Picasso’s Weeping Woman for the Tate. We fund many items that have been saved from export. A recent example of that was the 16th-century miniature painting of the Spanish Armada, which we supported for National Museums Northern Ireland.
There’s land, too. One of my favourite recent land acquisitions was Skokholm island, off the south coast of Wales, which we supported for the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales. It’s an exquisite island nature reserve that is particularly important for puffins.
As you support nationally significant heritage, does this mean you work more with big national museums than with regional museums?
Increasingly, I would say we’re working very much with regional museums. Several things have influenced that. I think over the last ten years or so, there’s been an acceptance and an understanding from some of the bigger national museums of how important, how impactful those archaeological finds that are declared as Treasure are when they are owned by and displayed in their local area.
I think a good example of this was the Staffordshire Hoard. It’s an absolutely stunning find. It was a partnership acquisition between the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, which share the collection and display it between both museums. Millions of people visited both museums and exhibitions when the Hoard was first displayed, and it continues to be one of the most visited items in both of those museums. It’s a really good example of how much impact a find like that can have, really capturing the public interest as well as being a spectacular find in itself.
On a smaller scale, a similar Treasure acquisition was the East Cambridgeshire Torc, which we supported for Ely Museum back in about 2017. It is an exceptionally large torc, and although a single item, it is so evocative. It had a lot of press interest in trying to work out how it would have been used or worn. There were various ideas: that it could have been used to ornament a sacrificial animal or statue, or even that it could potentially have been worn by a pregnant woman, as some form of protection. When the museum reopened following refurbishment and showcased the torc, it had a tremendous impact for the museum. That’s one of the reasons why we’re really pleased that we have far more regional museums approaching us for acquisitions now than we did perhaps earlier in our history.
Have there been many changes in what types of items you are giving grants for?
Yes, I would absolutely say that. As time moves on, I’m conscious that the view we have now of what counts as nationally important heritage has moved some distance from those early days in the 1980s. We still support those Grade I-listed buildings, those incredibly important works of art, but we also support things that have a great importance to UK heritage through the sense of a national identity, and a much broader sense of culture.
My recent absolute favourite was Shaw’s Moonrocket, which we supported for the Fairground Heritage Centre a few years ago. It’s an original fairground ride from the 1930s and you can see a picture of it all lit up on our website. It’s so redolent of that rise in the early 20th century of the fairground movement and the first appearance of those motorised fairground rides. What was wonderful about this case was that, when the Moonrocket first came to us and our expert panel before application, one of our panel-members remembered riding on it as a child and what an incredible experience it had been to go on this really exciting fairground ride.
What is perhaps different now is that we are able to support items that have that personal resonance in terms of 20th-century culture in particular. I think over time we have increasingly broadened our interpretation and our understanding of what nationally important heritage is.
You announced recently that a sledge and sledge flag from Ernest Shackleton’s expedition to the South Pole had been acquired for the nation with a grant from the NHMF. Why was it important to secure these objects?
Those are an example of items that were export-deferred. They had been sold to an overseas purchaser and their export had been deferred due to their importance to national heritage. We were so pleased that we were able to step in and support their purchase for National Maritime Museum and the Scott Polar Research Institute, who are working in partnership.
The items are really evocative of the polar expeditions – and rare, rare survivals of items of their type. The sledge itself is the only complete example that survives from Shackleton’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt to reach the South Pole. The expedition came within just 100 miles of their goal, which in the context of the wider journey they made is an exceptional achievement. It’s remembered as it was the expedition in which Shackleton made the decision to turn back because to continue would have been fatal for the expedition-members, and so it reflects his approach as an expedition-leader very clearly.
It was really important, I think, to acquire the objects as a pair. Although they’re going to different institutions, the Scott Polar Research Institute and the National Maritime Museum will be working very closely to link the items in online interpretation and content to make sure they continue to be understood together.
What have been the NHMF’s biggest accomplishments over the past 40 years? Are there certain objects that you’ve helped save that you feel are particularly important?
It is very difficult to pinpoint any specific objects. What I would say feels like our greatest achievement is the number of items of any category of heritage that are spread far and wide across the UK. For me, the most important thing that NHMF has achieved over the past 40 years is that anyone within the UK can search on our lists of projects and find something within their local area that we have supported over that time. They can have that guaranteed public access to an item – to a museum item, to an archival item, to a nature reserve, to a piece of land – that has been saved through NHMF’s support.
The heritage sector is facing new changes and challenges with the pandemic. What sort of impact has this had on the work of the NHMF?
What we have said is that, due to the pandemic, we have in effect paused our normal business of grant-making in order to focus on the most urgent cases coming through and also in order to preserve our funds. There is the Culture Recovery Fund through the government, and organisations are still able to seek support from that, so what we are trying to do is to reserve as much of our funding as possible to ensure that we are able to respond to any need that emerges later.
Obviously, we have still been able to respond for urgent cases, such as the Shackleton items, which could not wait because of the export-deferral deadline. But I think it is safe to say that, during this period, there has been a lull in acquisition approaches from museums because it is a more challenging time for institutions to consider acquiring.
Medieval hoards, Roman writing tablets, and prehistoric weapons are among the many archaeological artefacts NHMF grants have helped secure for UK museums. We take a look at some of the fund’s heritage highlights.