Contrary to popular belief, not all of the museum’s 2,000-plus paintings are on public view
London’s National Gallery has quietly transformed its display policy to show far fewer of its paintings. Contrary to the widespread belief that it is among the few very large museums anywhere in the world that shows nearly all its collection, in fact nearly half of its works are off view.
Neil MacGregor, while serving as director of the gallery, wrote in his introduction to the 1995 “Complete Illustrated Catalogue” that “every one of its 2,000 or so paintings is on public view”. The majority were installed in the main galleries, along with a dense display in a lower level gallery, known as Room A. By 2012, there were just over 1,000 paintings in the main galleries and 700 in Room A, representing 72% of the collection.
The proportion is now even lower, following the reopening of Room A earlier this month. The gallery space has been redecorated and has a much more elegant presentation. The former ranks of massed pictures have been replaced by a broadly chronological display with a much smaller number of better works. Room A is only open on Wednesdays and the first Sunday of the month.
There are currently 1,020 paintings in the main galleries—around 43% of the entire collection of 2,349 works. A further 218 are in Room A, so 53% of the collection is on view. Of the remaining pictures, 81 are on loan, a small number are in conservation and about 1,000 are in storage (works in store can be viewed by appointment).
The number on show will increase by around 100 when the rooms now being used for “Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice” are rehung after the show’s closure on 15 June. Other lower level galleries are shut and are due to reopen this autumn after refurbishment, with a further 70 pictures. These developments will push up the proportion of works on show to 60%.
Nicholas Penny, the director of the gallery, says that until two years ago Room A, with its 700 pictures, was essentially an “open store”. His idea was to opt for a sparser display that would “turn the reserve collection into a gallery which visitors would enjoy—with a more visually attractive display of the better pictures”. He also admits that the idea of most of the National Gallery’s collection being on show has long been “a bit of myth”.