This autumn, Tate Britain is entering a transitional phase. We are preparing for next February, when the Tate Britain Millbank Project begins, refurbishing the original 19th-century galleries and opening up new public spaces.
The need to renovate the galleries comes primarily from the need to make them fit for purpose. In doing this we can also develop our ambitions to show a greater range of works from the Tate collection, in a wider range of media, in better conditions. Reconstructing the spaces will not only enhance and conserve the architectural qualities of the building, but also allow us to have more curatorial flexibility in showing heavier sculptures or more sensitive works on paper, for example. Finally, a clearer layout and more open circulation will make the building easier to navigate. The changes will restore the historic Millbank entrance as the main entrance to the gallery, giving you a more unified experience of the building and the collection. By 2013, it will be much easier to see that the building is on three levels, with a journey laid out in front of you, in contrast to the current more fragmented experience. During this two-year transitional phase, while the south-east galleries are closed for refurbishment, we also have the chance to try out new things in how the collection is displayed.
In the rehang of the collection at Tate Britain changes have already been introduced in all the galleries on the western side. We have prioritised the sense of walking through the architecture, down an enfilade of galleries in which one doorway opens on to the next. At present we are showing twentieth-century British art in some depth, with an open and primarily visual hang. It is not overtly teaching any lessons, but allowing the works to speak to each other. Using the architectural quality of the spaces, it draws you through the rooms in a more continuous flow.
Alongside this chronological suite, a series of in-focus rooms allows us to stage mini-exhibitions, changing every 6-9 months. These rooms provide a change of pace; showcasing an artist or a particular work, exploring new research or under-represented materials, and displaying objects from the Tate Archive. These provide information in some depth, according to the needs of the project. At present I am especially pleased that this approach allows us to showcase all the work which has recently gone into the archive and sculptures of Naum Gabo, a Soviet émigré who experimented with very early forms of sculptural construction, often in pioneering plastics.
We also have displays on the significance of the depiction of faces and figures in William Blake’s work, and a large central gallery of over 70 key works from the 16th to the 19th centuries including Millais’ Ophelia and Waterhouse’s Lady of Shallott. The Clore galleries on the eastern side of the building continue to house The Romantics, a display devoted to JMW Turner and his contemporaries and successors.
By 2013, this two-tier approach to experiencing the collection will extend into the newly-refurbished galleries, giving you the flow of a walk through 500 years of British art history, and the time to stop and consider an artist or period more in-depth. In the meantime, there are many works on display at Tate Britain that I would count as new collection highlights, but I would probably focus on the way that this more informal hang allows works which might not normally get to meet (even if they were made around the same time) to be seen together. Now we have abstract nudes and explicit nudes; society portrait paintings alongside monumental wooden heads; Englishmen alongside Soviet dictators; words on paper and on canvas. Being led by the eye allows for surprising conjunctions and the collection always opens up new vistas.