Can you remember the last time you were really excited about seeing your local museum’s pre-modern permanent collection? Familiarity is the antagonist for the seasoned art viewer, and growing weary of a permanent collection becomes inescapable. Perhaps this is excusable in the case of a small collection in a provincial museum—but quite a different thing when the collection bills itself as the nation’s definitive authority on British art.
In 2000, a well-needed schism occurred at the Tate Gallery in London. The result was the birthing of the internationally focused, contemporary Tate Modern. Taking residence in a massive, ultra-cool former power plant, it immediately became (and continues to be) the most visited gallery in the world. What then was left at the original site—with its staunchly English-looking galleries—became Tate Britain. “Able to return to its original function as the national gallery of British art,” the art guardians of all things British doubled down on what they knew. The gallery thus suffered from its remit of being too British and unyielding on keeping things as they should be—or rather, as they always have been. Precedent is the opposite of cool, and Tate Britain reveled in its gray soul, treating visitors to a convalescent home for art.
A decade later, incoming director Dr. Penelope Curtis rethought the entire project. Tate Britain avoided the usual “jazz up the collection” formula of stripping out remnants of the past to create a modern architectural space. Instead, Curtis set out to define the space where a 21st-century British understanding of the history of British art would be showcased. The result, called the BP Walk through British Art (on offer since May 2013), brought a renewed understanding of the pre-modern collection and in turn, a fresh experience for the long-fatigued. This was achieved in a three-point effort.
The first task was to reorder a rather diverse collection that spans 500 years. There is only one light-handed way to do this, and that is to order everything chronologically. Absent is the old, complex system of grouping work by movement, and in its place each gallery is assigned a date. However, works are not displayed strictly sequentially within the galleries, but grouped playfully with implied themes that the viewer is free to ponder. Placards and wall texts are hung well below the work and are so unobtrusive that the viewer is allowed to stay engaged with the art; one can actually avoid reading one’s way through the galleries. Thanks to Henry VIII’s dislike of any visual record that preceded his reign, the journey of British art begins in 1540 and moves through to the present. Each room flows easily into the next, and the once-perplexing labyrinth is smartly ordered by a circular “counter clockwise” flow through the outer galleries.
The second order of business was to “make do and mend” the existing galleries. It must have been tempting to neutralize the brash 1920s green architraves that trim the entrances and walls with etched marble throughout each of the western galleries. Instead, by restoring precedent with a touch of postmodern polish, it shows that the best way to defuse an architectural feature is by celebrating it. Along with complimentary gray walls and plinths, the setting works as a perfect foil for the first 400 years of gilt-framed and white-marbled works. To help the viewer navigate through each of the (now brighter) day-lit galleries, the date is subtly etched in gold into the floor at the entrance of each gallery.
The third and most critical change is the physical rehanging. What is the value of the masterpiece in the 21st century when context changes with a simple Google search? Value and meaning are to be found in optimization, and though it was contentious for some, this is exactly what the Tate set out to do. The device of creating respectable distances between work to highlight significance was jettisoned. Likewise, long, spoon-fed wall texts are notably absent. Curtis, apparently taking a page from Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum (1994), implements a contemporary strategy for the salon-hang. Sparser at the beginning of The Walk, it builds until it is fully realized in the Victorian gallery of 1840. In this room, divergent pictures are nearly touching and are three-deep high in places. Part Victorian gallery, part Google image search return, no work is given overt precedent or allowed to dominate. It will feel a bit crowded and unsympathetic for those looking for an intimate experience, but it’s superb as a tactic for defusing pre-Raphaelite melodrama. Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott (1888), a public favorite mischievously hung high, is sandwiched by Millais’ light society portrait Hearts Are Trumps (1872) and Bramley’s harrowing A Hopeless Dawn (1888). However, it’s not just thematic juxtaposition at play, but stylistic as well. An amazing example of visual difference is Roussel’s The Reading Girl (1886-7) and Clausen’s The Girl at the Gate (1889). The Japanese influence is evident with Roussel’s work and offers a perspective not unlike a photograph, while Clausen’s French training, with its moments of Impressionist brushwork, very much reads as a painting. If it feels forced at times, so did the end of the Industrial Revolution. When leaving the 19th for the 20th century, the galleries mellow, become modern, and the post-precedent moment fades.
The genuinely great part of this rehang is that it’s not possible to take in the whole experience in a single visit. Grand narratives are stripped away and challenge the viewer to decide what is important. To understand the connections takes time. This is quite a different situation from the didactic quality at the Tate Modern. Like a rocker that has reflected on his middle-age crisis to embrace old age in style, Tate Britain has become post-cool.