arts and design

‘We’re ready for you’: English galleries and museums throw open their doors


Leading museum and gallery directors have urged the public to grab a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see national treasures up close when the buildings reopen in England on Monday. Social distancing means that great art, like the newly restored Gainsborough, Cornard Wood, at the National Gallery, or the precious archaeological finds from Sutton Hoo in the British Museum, will be easier to examine than ever before – all due to government bailouts. It is an enticing offer, although one that stands to be taken up most readily by privileged sections of the population.

Hartwig Fischer, director of the British Museum, told the Observer he regarded it as “the perfect moment to rediscover” the exhibits: “In the summer, the museum usually has a high proportion of overseas tourists, so this year will of course be different.”

But this is not yet the cultural reset so many called for during lockdown. Pre-booked time slots and queuing even for free displays mean the benefits are likely to be enjoyed largely by the middle class and people already familiar with these grand buildings.

At the National Gallery, members have priority booking, but this weekend director Dr Gabriele Finaldi made a special plea for “first-time visitors to discover the art, the beautiful interiors, the wonderful views, and to get acquainted with Van Gogh, Turner, Leonardo da Vinci and Artemisia Gentileschi.”

At the Tate, director Maria Balshaw knows it is established gallery-goers who will be first through her doors: “People are craving experiences beyond their screens, and museums provide a safe environment to get that feeling of engagement we have all been deprived of for so long,” she said.

Yet restrictions on international travel would, Balshaw hoped, also mean new visitors would try a neighbouring gallery for the first time. “We know that all museums’ audiences will be more local, which offers a great opportunity for arts and culture to sit at the heart of their communities, especially where those communities have experienced such hardship over the past year.”

In Scotland, many large museums and galleries are already open, with others, like the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, following suit today on Sunday. In Wales, as in England, they open this week, while in Northern Ireland doors stay shut for another week.

Across the nations, curators of smaller, unusual galleries, such as the Russell-Cotes, a Victorian villa on the cliffs above Eastbourne, or Newlyn Art Gallery in Cornwall, opening on Wednesday, hope curious local residents will take the place of tourists.

For the artist Gavin Turk, a rebellious star of the Young British Artists group in the 1990s, this first reopening will chiefly serve “an audience who are already aware”. “The arts generally are a bit like that. In terms of the wider challenges facing the way the world of culture communicates, they are still a long way off,” he said.

Turk is an artist who has struggled with his “privileged” position of making art for gallery audiences. “The museum is also kind of top spot for that, and I struggle with it, because I really want to make art that is part of the wider world.”

Turk, who is working on a sculpture to sit atop the Coronet theatre in Notting Hill, called last year “terrifying” for artists. “I know a lot of people working in galleries who lost their jobs too. But I don’t think we will ever go back to exactly how we were and that is a good thing. We need to improve access for lots of people, not just the poor. And there is the issue of the environment as well. A whole set of new criteria.”

Visitor numbers at the British Museum went down by 80% due to lockdowns last year. Footfall was lower than it has been since 1964. Recent research shows that major London attractions all experienced big drops.

A gallery technician helps preparations for the reopening of a show by Heather Phillipson at Tate Britain.
A gallery technician helps preparations for the reopening of a show by Heather Phillipson at Tate Britain. Photograph: John Phillips/Getty Images

The British Museum said extra support from the government had offset its fall in commercial income and allowed it to conserve the collection and prepare for reopening: “Tomorrow we can make the upper floor galleries accessible again, meaning visitors can come to see the mummies, the Sutton Hoo treasures, and the Islamic gallery.”

Free tickets for the permanent collections are still available until 20 June and can be booked online, as can temporary exhibitions. The forthcoming Thomas Becket and Nero shows were originally scheduled for autumn 2020 and both are proving popular, with more than 6,000 tickets booked for each.

At Tate, with its four galleries in England closed for about 300 days since March last year, Balshaw said full recovery would be a slow process. “We have extended as many shows as possible where they’ve been cut short by lockdown, including a poignant survey of photographs by Zanele Muholi at Tate Modern, and a series of new paintings by Aliza Nisenbaum at Tate Liverpool celebrating local NHS staff. Other shows originally planned for last year were moved to 2021 instead, such as a landmark new Rodin exhibition at Tate Modern.”

Tickets for Tate’s galleries are available for this week, including the free collection displays and new commissions and exhibitions, including Heather Phillipson’s installation at Tate Britain to Haegue Yang’s extended show at Tate St Ives.

At the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square, where doors have been shut for 152 days since last year, the reopening show, Copernicus, starts on 21 May. From next week visitors can see two other free exhibitions; Gossaert, which opened for only a week last year, and a Rosalind Nashashibi show extended from last year. Social distancing is in place along a redesigned one-way safety route that will take visitors through a completely rehung Room 12, where Hans Holbein’s paintings, including The Ambassadors (1533), will be “in conversation” with works from the Italian Renaissance.



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