Tate Britain has had its share of drama since opening in 1897. As the renewed gallery opens its doors on 19 November, Tate’s Director, Nicholas Serota, discusses how its unique past will inform its future
On 7 January 1928, one of my predecessors as Director of the Tate, Charles Aitken, approached the gallery with trepidation. He was wading through icy water several feet deep. Earlier that morning, the Thames had breached the wall of the Embankment and flooded the lower floors of the Millbank gallery. Objects and cases were floating and prints, watercolours - including works in the Turner Bequest - and drawings were sodden and mudded.
However, this low point also revealed the love that many had for the Tate. Members of the public, employees of other galleries and the great and the good came to help the salvage operation. It is an example of the sense of community that informs Tate Britain and it is this spirit that we have set out to preserve and develop in the home of British Art.
When we open the doors on 19 November, the upper floors of the Millbank building will be accessible to the public for the first time since the flood. We have set out to give the national collection of British Art a home that shows the collection to advantage in conditions of natural light and provides for the needs of today’s gallery visitor. It combines the grandeur of old with the strengths of the new.
The chronological display – opened to acclaim in May – spans five centuries of British art, from John Bettes’ A Man in a Black Cap to The Chapman Family Collection. Standing in front of Reynold’s The Archers and looking down the familiar enfilade to David Bomberg’s The Mud Bath, we see both the breadth of British art and the scale of the building.
Changes have also been made to Tate Britain as a social space. The restaurant – a favourite since opening in 1927 – has been renovated and Rex Whistler’s murals (remarkable survivors of the flood) conserved. Opposite, the café will extend onto the terrace in front of the Clore Gallery, opening views onto the river. Members will be able to enjoy a new area on the upper level, restored to include the old library furnishings, a reminder of Tate’s history and the scholarship that continues in the new Hyman Kreitman Research Centre downstairs.
Tate Britain’s renewal is part of our ambition to redefine what a public gallery can be. As well as presenting British art, the collection displays examine the evolution of British history and society. Archive displays give visitors the chance to enjoy more of the collection than has hitherto been possible. Meanwhile, the learning suites and digital areas invite the viewer to bring their own experience to the exchange of ideas, promoting creativity and encouraging conversation. The aim throughout is to champion the role of art in society.
The new Tate Britain aims to be both a laboratory as well as a showcase for art. These ambitions now have wider application: it’s a place in which people can have a provocative and enjoyable engagement with society, history and the present through art. We look forward to opening the door and once again, welcoming visitors up the front steps of Tate Britain.