Last week, when offered another chance to go back inside the Portrait Gallery, I jumped at the chance! I was keen to see how things are shaping up. The group I was with has the specific remit of looking at orientation and signage and exploring visitor flow – how visitors and staff will move around and experience the building.
For those of you who know and love the Portrait Gallery, you will remember the dark, box-like entrance space, where you would be greeted by a friendly face and then, having hung up your coat and umbrella, continue straight through to the spectacular Great Hall. There was nothing much to see or do in the entrance space as was, but equally it was hard to imagine what it would look like if the walls either side came down. It was with trepidation and excitement then that we approached the front door and tried to imagine the new visitor experience for ourselves.
As you enter the building you now have choices. You can still go straight on into the Great Hall, currently boxed in for its own protection, like some kind of contemporary installation or Houdini-style disappearing trick. Is it really still in there? I wonder, desperately trying to peer through the keyhole for a glimpse of the extraordinary lamps or The Frieze portraits.
Looking to the the left and right when you walk in, you can see the whole length of the building, right down to where the café used to be on the left and to the right the vista goes straight into the modern and contemporary gallery where there are still traces of Rough Cut Nation , the exhibition held in there during the Festival last year. This amazing, bright-new space will house the information desk, and ultra-stylish shop and café (where the infamous scones will be making a comeback!), while on the side where the Queen Street Café once was will now be the cloakrooms, a great, glass elevator, a Contemporary Gallery and the dramatic glass-fronted Education Studio and Seminar Room.
Upstairs on the top floor, it was magical to see light pouring through the beautifully restored skylights in what was formally known as the Raeburn Room and to see the now entirely empty void transformed by the moving of the Antiquaries Library to the opposite side of the building, in what amounts to a giant jigsaw puzzle for the architects and contractors.
Back in the office, I’ve been working with Director James Holloway, Susan Diamond, Head of Fundraising, and the exhibition designer Cavan Convery on Portrait of the Nation, an exhibition at the National Gallery Complex, which opens in a couple of weeks’ time. This exhibition will give you a taste of what’s to come when we re-open and is a long awaited welcome back to some of your favourites from the Portrait Gallery. I hope you’ll come along and enjoy it. I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait until we re-open!