Scottish National Portrait Gallery Unveils New Face


SNPG £17.6m restoration project breathes new life into prestigious collection

‘Ladies and Gentlemen, there are very many stories we would like to tell you this morning …’ And so the tour through the newly transformed Scottish National Portrait Gallery began – the first look at the ambitious £17.6m restoration project that has sought to provide the prestigious national collection with a worthy home once again.

Having been left by the wayside during the first wave of museum modernisation, this is a compelling bid by the SNGP – the world’s first purpose-built portrait gallery – to regain its early initiative, to re-envisage what a portrait gallery might mean in the 21st Century.

The achievements of this refurbishment (the first in its 120-year history) are plain to see. For one thing, the SNPG now has 60% more space in which to exhibit, with the conversion of storage and office areas into gallery space meaning that all three levels of the building are to be opened up to the public for the first time. As a result, an incredible 800 works are now on display in the gallery for the first time.

Furthermore, the straight-forward chronological hang has been given a new coherence by the complete removal of the Library from the upper floor to the first, with the effect of removing the ‘dead ends’ from the journey through Reformation to Revolution, The Age of Improvement to Contemporary Scotland. But equally, every effort has been made to make each room a self-contained, internally coherent exhibition. New also, is the cross-section thematic ‘trails’ that cut through the chronological collection – from ‘The Best Wee Nation & The World’ trail, seeking to reveal the global reach of Scottish culture, to the pertinent ‘Situations Vacant’ trail, which takes the (job-hunting) visitor on an historical  tour through the tough world of work.

With minimal hanging and pared-down interior design the SNPG hopes to give new voice to the portraits themselves. With the carpets stripped away to reveal original wooden floors, the walls have been given a fresh coat of carefully considered colour to unify and compliment the work on display, while the existing windows and skylights have become a much more prominent feature, newly endowing the rooms with a bright airiness.

This minimalism is, in part, no doubt, a function of budget limitations. But, ironically, perhaps the greatest success of the refurbishment is the limits of its reach. Crucially, rather than mindlessly jumping on the bandwagon of digitalisation, and forgetting completely the museum’s USP of ‘knowledge in tangible form’, the SNPG has retained the fusty depth of the old world museum. Granted the gallery is now littered with touch-screen units enabling visitors to dig down deep into the collection, watch videos, play games etc, but these are juxtaposed with original fittings, most prominent of which being the dark brown glass cases. Together they come together to create a gallery to be explored – in which to become the grubby-hanged archaeologist, unearthing prints and drawings from hidden drawers, as well as the internet-savvy researcher, cutting to the chase, and getting the facts.

One particular treat for those acting the first capacity is the gruesome and old-school cabinet of curiosities housed in the newly re-constructed library, where visitors can feast their eyes on phrenomological death masks depicting the supposedly archetypical features of the ‘male insane’, ‘female idiot’, ‘female extreme cunning’, and a host of murderers.

This transformation is not, however, without its problems. First and foremost amongst these is the fact that, in placing new emphasis on the notion of context, the SNPG appears to reveal a schizophrenic fear of its portraits.  An entire room, for instance, has been devoted to John Slezer’s 17th Century documentation of the Scottish landscape, while Thomas Annan’s photographs of Glasgow slums between 1868 and 1871 have received equally preferential treatment. Perhaps most bizarre is the War at Sea gallery, affording dramatic aerial views of the battleship-strewn Firth of Forth, yes, but portraits, no. Of course, these are ‘portraits’ of Scotland, of an historical moment etc, but, with this extremely broad conception of portraiture, the refurbishment threatens to undermine what is unique about the SNPG.

There is also a rather lame stab at a populist ‘Hot Scots’ gallery, with Paolo Nutini, David Tennant, and Susan Boyle taking pride of place. Come on Scotland – why so modest? There is surely more to your contemporary achievements than acoustic guitars, reality TV, and Dr Who. But in all this, the SNPG is not alone, having stumbled upon the core problem that confronts portrait galleries in the 21st Century: how are galleries to make national portrait collections appealing and accessible to a public whose primary interest in portraiture revolves around the contemporary celebrity (see Mario Testino at the NPG)? The SNPG has taken the dual routes of contextualisation for historical portraits, and incorporation for contemporary. The problems of both approaches are self-evident.

But these difficulties need not undermine the remarkable achievement of the SNPG in breathing new life into the national portrait collection. It is a gallery filled, as promised, with very many stories – of the famous, the infamous and the curious – and, in this, achieves precisely what a portrait gallery should hope to achieve; that human connection with another irrespective of distance and time passed. Words/Photo Thomas Keane © 2011 ArtLyst

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