Changing Spaces: How London’s Museums Are Rethinking Themselves

London’s institutions – including the newly reopened National Portrait Gallery, the V&A and Tate Britain – are evolving in the work they show and the way they show it. But what’s driving this cultural shift?

BY Farah Nayeri in Frieze , Frieze London | 27 JUN 23

When Thomas Gainsborough painted The Baillie Family sometime around 1784, he probably didn’t imagine that the work would one day be held up as a depiction of ignominy as well as privilege.

This large group portrait is one of the highlights of Tate Britain’s recently unveiled collection rehang. Now, though, it is displayed in close proximity to an arresting denunciation of slavery: Lost Vitrines (2007) by Black British artist Keith Piper. This set of objects was conceived by Piper to reference genuine acts of rebellion by enslaved people: escape from slavery, wreckage of plantation infrastructure, and interference with their masters’ food and drink using bodily excretions such as saliva.

Thomas Gainsborough, The Baillie Family, c.1784, oil on canvas, 2.5 x 2.3 m. Courtesy: Tate
Thomas Gainsborough, The Baillie Family, c.1784, oil on canvas, 2.5 x 2.3 m. Courtesy: Tate

‘Gainsborough’s painting is a picture of gentility, cultivation and civility,’ says Tate Britain director Alex Farquharson on a recent tour of the rehang. ‘But when you look into who the family is, the man owns plantations in Grenada and British Guyana, and the children – who are models of innocence and decorum – each inherit £10,000, about £1 million in today’s money. And some of them receive compensation in return for the abolition of slavery.’

‘It would be wrong to show a painting like that and not reveal who these people were,’ Farquharson explains – in other words, ‘to see the ship from the captain’s point of view’. He dismisses criticisms that Tate Britain is being ‘woke’ and putting social commentary before aesthetic value: ‘The fixation on “woke” is a very impoverished way of thinking about the value of seeing art in context and art in historical context,’ he says, ‘in such a way that it speaks to us today.’

Tate Britain’s rehang is one of the many transformations that are sweeping London’s museums and galleries as they embrace diversity and offer a more accurate representation of 21st-century Britain.

Tate Britain Rehang, installation view, 2023. Courtesy: Tate and Madeleine Buddo
Tate Britain Rehang, installation view, 2023. Courtesy: Tate and Madeleine Buddo

In my book Takedown: Art and Power in the Digital Age (2022), I suggest that these transformations are being brought on by the ever-increasing democratization of society, the social-media age and two seismic social movements – #metoo and Black Lives Matter – which have shaken the Western world. Nowadays, no British art or culture institution can afford to shrug off centuries of gender and racial inequality and to ignore the roots of multicultural Britain: slavery, colonialism and their enduring legacy. Museums and galleries of all sizes in and around London are aware that they must adapt or perish. So they are moving with the times: rethinking their collections, exhibitions and management structures, and better reflecting an increasingly egalitarian 21st-century Britain.

‘A museum would be embarrassed today to have a hang or a show that is composed of 75, 80, or 90 percent white male artists,’ says Lydia Yee, who until March was chief curator of the Whitechapel Gallery, and previously worked as a curator at the Barbican and the Bronx Museum in New York. ‘There’s a young generation of people who have come to see diversity as the way things are and should be, and they are not going to accept that we go back.’

Even if the art world wanted to revert to its old ways, Yee believes, social media would prevent it, because ‘people are very easily and quickly able to raise and amplify their voices’. Her conclusion: ‘I don’t see this as temporary.’

Change certainly doesn’t look temporary at another landmark London institution: the National Portrait Gallery, often described as ‘the nation’s family album’, which is reopening this month after a three-year redevelopment. Under its 46-year-old director Nicholas Cullinan, the NPG is bringing itself up to date: no longer just portraying the great and the good, showing many more women and non-white sitters, and acknowledging that the ‘great and the good’ might not necessarily be very great or very good.

‘The message is pretty simple,’ says Cullinan. ‘If as a national institution you want to grow and thrive, you need to serve your audience. If, for whatever reason, you only represent a narrow group, you will become irrelevant. That’s how it is for any organization or museum or company.’

Cullinan accepts how important it is for the NPG to better represent women. He points to Work in Progress (2021-22), a 28-foot-long, eight-foot-high, seven-panel mural now in the NPG that shows 130 women, both famous and lesser-known, who have contributed to British history and culture. The mural was co-created by artists Jann Haworth and Liberty Blake together with individuals and communities from all over Britain.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of Mai (Omai), c.1776, oil on canvas, 2.4 × 1.5 m. Courtesy: National Portrait Gallery and Getty
Sir Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of Mai (Omai), c.1776, oil on canvas, 2.4 × 1.5 m. Courtesy: National Portrait Gallery and Getty

He dismisses the notion that diversifying collections means opting for works that are not of high quality. ‘I don’t think it’s binary,’ he says. He points out that in April the NPG, with the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, jointly acquired Joshua Reynolds’s 1776 Portrait of Mai, which represents the first Polynesian to visit Britain. He describes the work as ‘an artistic masterpiece’, but also as ‘one of the first major depictions, certainly in this country, of a non-white sitter who has agency and dignity’.

Acknowledging that cultural identity is at the heart of many contentious discussions in modern-day Britain, Cullinan says that galleries such as the NPG are places where it is possible to ‘exchange different viewpoints and ideas without it becoming incredibly divisive’.

Looking beyond flagship institutions like Tate and the NPG, London has a rich tapestry of museums, some with unique selling points. The Museum of the Home, for instance – located in some 300-year-old almshouses in east London, and set up in 1914 as a museum of furniture and woodwork – has reopened as a place to explore the many definitions of ‘home’. The Migration Museum, which is currently located in Lewisham Shopping Centre in south London, puts on exhibitions about how Britain is defined by the migrants who have moved to and away from it; its current touring exhibition is about how migrants have helped make the NHS. Significantly, the museum has recently received planning permission to develop a permanent home near Aldgate in the City of London. 

The Foundling Museum Introductory Gallery. Courtesy: GG Archard
The Foundling Museum Introductory Gallery. Courtesy: GG Archard

The Foundling Museum, opened in 2004, is dedicated to ‘people who have experienced something that many of us haven’t’, says Emma Ridgway, the museum’s new director: ‘the experience of being fostered or adopted, or of being someone who fosters or adopts, or who has been through an institutional care system’. The museum, which is situated on the site of the former Foundling Hospital in Bloomsbury, has inherited that institution’s impressive collection of art and artefacts donated by its historical benefactors, including William Hogarth, who encouraged other artists to give their work in support of the hospital, and George Frideric Handel, who gave benefit concerts there. The museum also houses a staircase that was once in the boys’ wing of the hospital, a reconstitution of the governors’ rococo Court Room and a heartrending collection of tokens that mothers left at the hospital by which they might later be identified when they parted with a child they were unable to care for. ‘Building a bigger story of the many people who have been through the [care] system is a really important part of the life of the museum,’ says Ridgway. But the Foundling Museum is not just about history. It has shows of contemporary art, and hosted an exhibition of letters to the government from schoolkids in the wake of Covid curated by London fashion/art provocateurs Sports Banger. In other words, it continues to evolve. 

Taking some cues from the social and community agendas of such spaces, artist Alvaro Barrington – London based, but born in Venezuela of Caribbean heritage – has just announced details of his new arts centre on Whitechapel Road in the East End. It will offer activities and educational programmes for local people focused on skills for the creative industries, plus a library, a communal garden and a canteen.

View across the Collections Hall at V&A East Storehouse. Courtesy: Diller Scofidio + Renfro
View across the Collections Hall at V&A East Storehouse. Courtesy: Diller Scofidio + Renfro

Other major institutions are reimagining how a museum in London in the 21st century might look and operate. Opening in 2025 in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, V&A East comprises the V&A East Museum and the V&A East Storehouse. The size of a football stadium, the latter will house 280,000 objects and 1,000 separate archives (including David Bowie’s), previously in storage in west London – as well as an art library, a research centre, a shop and a restaurant, and have exhibition spaces vast enough to display whole façades of buildings.

‘It’s a completely new way of thinking how a storehouse can work,’ says V&A East director Gus Casely-Hayford. ‘Anyone can come in and, where possible, engage with it.’ This includes, he says, ‘local populations, our neighbours’, as well as students and faculty from the nearby UCL East, the London College of Fashion and the University of East London.

Recalling that inclusivity is a founding mission of any museum, Casely-Hayford says that 21st-century institutions such as V&A East have to ‘make sure that we are refreshing what we deliver, so that it really does feel dynamic and engaging for the young of today’.

Meanwhile, 100 miles from London, the British Museum’s former head of the Americas, Jago Cooper, is also reinventing the concept of the museum at the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich, which turns 50 this year. The university gallery houses the collection of the late Robert and Lisa Sainsbury, an attractive miscellany of works ranging from African art and classical Greek sculpture to paintings by Pablo Picasso and Francis Bacon. What’s unusual about it is how visitors interact with the art: they can hug Henry Moore’s Mother and Child (1932), lie in a hammock and look up at an Alberto Giacometti portrait and even experience being enclosed and on display in a showcase.

View of Level 2 Collection Stores at V&A East Storehouse. Courtesy: Diller Scofidio + Renfro
View of Level 2 Collection Stores at V&A East Storehouse. Courtesy: Diller Scofidio + Renfro

Cooper says that most museums, as conceived to this day, are still ‘based on the idea that art and material culture are property’, and that by entering one ‘you’ll get privileged access to someone else’s things’. He says that the Sainsbury Centre has ‘a fundamentally different starting point’: that art is ‘a living entity’, not a collection of ‘inanimate objects’, because of its ability to channel aspects of the human soul or spirit. The point of his museum, he says, is for the visitor to ‘form a fundamentally different type of relationship with art. Ultimately, it’s up to you to find what you like.’

‘Finding what you like’ is – obviously – extremely important to galleries that sell work. For the commercial sector, diversity of representation is also key to staying relevant, says Jeremy Epstein, co-founder of Edel Assanti gallery in Bloomsbury and founder and co-director (with Sarah Rustin) of London Gallery Weekend, an annual event held this year in June. ‘If everyone comes from the same or relatively similar backgrounds,’ he says, ‘you’re not going to really be able to expand the audience that you reach, because you can’t speak to them.’  

For Epstein, London has a unique ecosystem of art schools, non-profit art spaces exhibiting students and emerging artists, commercial galleries and free public institutions, all supporting and feeding off each other, and all inspiring each other to stay relevant and inclusive. It’s not just cultural, either. London’s diversity is physical, what Epstein calls its ‘strange, sprawling geography’. ‘You can’t really compare London’s gallery scene to any other gallery scene in the world,’ he says. This diffuse network – which is ‘quite hard to spot as a distinctive community’, unlike those of New York or Paris – means the city continually branches out, with new galleries springing up all over town. As the V&A opens huge new spaces in the east, small commercial galleries are returning to the West End.

According to Lydia Yee, the commercial gallery sector can sometimes be more nimble and responsive to change than large public museums, though their  missions are different. ‘Galleries know that collectors want to diversify their collections and collect art by women and artists of colour,’ she says. ‘I also think that they want to be part of the future generation and be part of that change.’

Main image: The new doors at the entrance to the National Portrait Gallery, designed by Tracey Emin. Photograph: Olivier Hess 

Farah Nayeri is a culture writer based in London. She is the author of Takedown: Art and Power in the Digital Age (2022).