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London's Latest Renaissance

The city on the Thames overflows with new and refurbished museums to help fuel an artistic boom.

April 30, 2000|MARJORIE MILLER | Marjorie Miller is The Times' bureau chief in London

The art business already is booming, particularly at free, major museums such as the Tate and the National Portrait Gallery where "there is no pressure of value for money," he said. Visitors stroll in, look at some art, have a coffee, browse in an art bookshop and see some more of the museum. In addition to works of art, the public wants its museums to offer lectures, biographical films and even concerts.

"In all of this new building, there is a conscious and unconscious attempt to take account of the shift in public expectations about what a gallery should offer," Saumarez Smith said.

Guidelines drawn up by the previous government of Tory Prime Minister John Major for National Lottery funds stressed public access, and the current Labor government of Prime Minister Tony Blair has continued to emphasize "the democratization of access to the arts," he said.

At the National Portrait Gallery in central London, which opened in 1896 to promote an appreciation of the men and women who have made British history and culture, this "democratization" began in the 1960s when the museum introduced photography to its exhibits and then lifted its "10-year rule"--that a person had to be dead for 10 years before appearing on the gallery walls.

"Seeing figures who have been part of their own life experience gives people a sense of their own identity. . . . Gradually, through the 1980s, the balance shifted from distant past to recent past to contemporary society," Saumarez Smith said.

The museum opened new ground-floor galleries in 1993, but found that the public began to ignore the historical art that suddenly seemed to be hidden away in the stairwell and upper galleries. The museum had to expand, but how could it do so in a crowded block behind the National Gallery?

In a rare move for museum administrators, normally a jealous bunch, Saumarez Smith and Neil MacGregor, director of the National Gallery, agreed to a trade. The Portrait Gallery handed over about 4,300 square feet of gallery space to the National Gallery in exchange for the right to build on a long, narrow courtyard they had shared.

On that land now stands a $25- million wing designed by Jeremy Dixon and Edward Jones, architects of the newly renovated Royal Opera House.

Inside the bright foyer of the new wing an escalator of a length usually reserved for the London Underground carries visitors up to a balcony for 20th century portraits--Margaret Thatcher, Iris Murdoch and Joan Collins among them. This airy white gallery provides a striking contrast to the somber Tudor Gallery upstairs, its walls covered in the gray felt used for military overcoats.

The museum also has a new lecture theater and an information technology study center, but perhaps the best addition is a rooftop restaurant with one of the most interesting views in London. The picture windows overlook a series of National Gallery roofs that lead the eye to the back of Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square--a hard-to-get perspective--and on to the church of St.-Martin-in-the-Fields, the Houses of Parliament and the city's new observation wheel, the London Eye. It is a fantastic "portrait of the nation," as the architects claim.

In summarizing the changes at the Portrait Gallery, the Evening Standard newspaper's Rowan Moore wrote, "What was a baffling mess is now a lucid pleasure, with the modern white architecture adding to the NPG's accumulation of historical layers."


Among the other historical buildings undergoing modern renovations are the 18th century Somerset House on the north bank of the Thames; the Wallace Collection at Hertford House on Manchester Square; and the Dulwich Picture Gallery, designed by Regency architect John Soane during the 19th century.

Somerset House, former government offices designed by George III's architect, William Chambers, is the only wholly new museum, providing a permanent home to the Gilbert Collection of decorative arts. Arthur Gilbert, a British-born entrepreneur from Los Angeles, donated the collection of about 800 pieces of gold, silver, snuffboxes and mosaics to Britain in 1996 after pulling it from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in a dispute over its display.

Gilbert calls himself "a maniacal collector," but said on the eve of the inauguration that he always felt his collection of aristocratic objets d'art "belonged to the people."

The collection will be installed in the refurbished South Building and the Embankment Building, which once housed stables, storage space and workshops, facing the Thames. Additionally, in the center of the 1,000-room Somerset House, a courtyard that used to be a parking lot will be turned into a public plaza--with fountains, restaurants and shops--that will double as an open-air concert hall. In all, Somerset House's renovation will open up more than 100,000 square feet of the historic building to the public.

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