Matthew Tanner, MBE

Doctor of Laws

Monday 20 July 2015 at 4pm - Orator: Colin Green

Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor,

Matthew Tanner is the Chief Executive of the ss Great Britain Trust and has achieved genuinely exceptional outcomes for the city of Bristol, and for our national heritage.

He created the vision for, and then drove the transformation of the ss Great Britain Trust, from a rusty and run-down heritage charity into a nationally important museum and leading visitor attraction. In so doing, he revolutionised the scientific approach to historic ship conservation and set new worldwide standards for both conservation and interpretation.

I first met Matthew in 1998, when he was seeking support for his idea of roofing the dry dock in which the ss Great Britain lies with a million pounds worth of glass plates, flowing water over the top to make it look as though the ship was afloat and creating the conditions of the Arizona desert in the dock itself.  Quite mad, or so I thought at the time!

How wrong I was, not only was it a practical solution to the somewhat intractable problem of corrosion of the ship’s wrought iron hull but also it has created an almost magical space where the beauty of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s masterpiece can be truly appreciated, especially on a sunny day.

Following its re-launch in 2005, the ss Great Britain became the UK Museum of the Year 2006, the UK Visitor Attraction of the Year, 2007, and, in the same year, won the European Micheletti Prize for European industrial and scientific museums. The project has since received some 30 other regional and national prizes or awards.  Much of the scientific and historical research involved has been published in academic journals, and Matthew speaks regularly at conferences and seminars and has published a number of related papers and books.

The Trust has secured more than £30m in capital investment for the city, and, as Bristol’s No. 1 Tourist Attraction, now welcomes around 200,000 visitors a year from all over the world and contributes nearly £10m every year to the Bristol economy.  

Matthew is acutely aware that as an independent museum, receiving no direct government grants, the Trust must thrive as a business.  He has developed the retail and events side to generate annual revenues in excess of £1.5m and the Trust was named as the winner of the Bristol Evening Post ‘Business of the Year’ Award in 2011.

Matthew Tanner negotiated the major partnership and collaboration between the Trust and the University of Bristol that led to the creation of the Brunel Institute in 2010.  The Brunel Institute provides teaching and research spaces and a library for all, and the Institute now cares for the University’s Brunel Collection, alongside the other elements of the designated National Brunel Collection, in state-of-the-art conditions providing immediate and free access to scholars and visitors to a wealth of historical resources.  Matthew's stewardship of the University's Brunel archive, combined with the Trust’s own collection, has resulted in a huge increase in numbers of people accessing the archive.  The University’s Brunel collection used to be accessed by roughly 400 people per year, mostly members of the University; it now is accessed by more than ten times that number from all sections of the public.  The collaboration has led to AHRC funding of two doctoral students, supervised jointly by the University and the Trust.

Matthew Tanner has continued to drive the ss Great Britain Trust forward into new areas. He has led the Trust into new educational initiatives, particularly focussed on encouraging young people from Bristol schools into careers in science and technology through the ‘Future Brunels Programme’, and in breaking down barriers to access for children of primary and secondary schools, many from the deprived wards of South Bristol.  The University has been actively involved in validating the educational outcomes and, through its sponsorship of the Merchants’ Academy, has provided many of the Future Brunels.  Another noteworthy example has been the Museums in Schools project, funded by Arts Council England, which surpassed all of its targets with more than 21,000 children visiting the Trust over the three-year period.

Under Matthew’s leadership, Bristol has increasingly become ‘home’ to Brunel and the ss Great Britain Trust has now secured an in-principle grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to construct a major new museum dedicated to Brunel alongside the ship, due to open in 2017. 

This £7m project is supported by the owner of the largest collection of Brunel material in private hands who, as well as making a very generous financial contribution to the project, has also pledged to donate his collection to the Trust.

Matthew has considerably raised the national profile and role of the ss Great Britain Trust as a leading light in the museum and heritage world and in so doing has contributed very significantly to Bristol’s status as a tourist destination and a desirable place for people to live and work.

He was awarded the MBE in 2007 for services to maritime conservation. In 2011, he received the accolade of Outstanding Contribution to Bristol Tourism and Hospitality at the Bristol Tourism & Hospitality Awards.

Matthew is a Director of Destination Bristol, Chairman of the Bristol Harbourside Forum, Honorary Vice-President of the Underfall Boatyard Trust and served as a Trustee of St. George’s. He sits on the Arts Council England South West Committee, chairs the National Association of Independent Museums and is seen as leading the field in interpretation and conservation, and particularly in the creative combination of an academically rigorous museum with a popular and sustainable visitor attraction.  

He now leads the independent museum sector and has become a major figure in the museum world, striving to improve the standing of all independent and entrepreneurial museums and influencing policy at the Arts Council and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.

All of these achievements would not have been possible without the active support of his family and I am delighted that Matthew’s wife and children and, most importantly his mother, are here today to witness this award.

Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Mr Matthew Tanner MBE, Master of Arts, Master of Philosophy as eminently worthy of the degree, Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.

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