A unique art memorial to the thousands of horses that died in WWI has won overall honours for Whanganui's Sarjeant Gallery in the regional art section of the 2016 New Zealand Museum Awards.

It is the first time that the Sarjeant Gallery has entered the awards which were announced at a ceremony in Auckland on May 18, during the Museums Australasia Joint Conference 2016.

The Horses Stayed Behind, by Cat Auburn, a former Tylee Cottage artist-in-residence at the Sarjeant Gallery, is a horizontal work featuring 487 horse hair rosettes arranged across 5m of stretched linen. The design was inspired by Victorian hair wreaths which women made from human hair to tell the history of a family or of a community.

Assistant curator Sarah McClintock accepted the regional art award on behalf of the gallery at the ceremony.

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Ms McClintock worked closely with Ms Auburun on the two-year project, including travelling with her to A&P shows around the country to collect horse hair for the rosettes and writing text.

She also curated the work when it was first exhibited at the gallery in 2015.

Ms McClintock - who finishes at the Sarjeant Gallery this week to take up a position as curator at the Suter Gallery in Nelson - says winning the award was the best leaving present she could have imagined.

"To be selected as a finalist the first time the gallery entered the awards is amazing. I think it's great that curating at the Sarjeant is being recognised at an important national level."