Exhibitions, Guest Posts

Guest Post: Thoughts on Tate Britain’s New Re-Hang

Photo by Julian Stallabrass via Flickr.

By Isobel Wilson-Cleary

Last month, Tate Britain unveiled the re-hang of its permanent collection; 20 galleries showcasing the history of British art since the 16th century. Newspapers exploded with positive reviews of this “gloriously, satisfyingly reactionary” re-work of the national collection. Gone are the thematic groupings and the lengthy explanatory labels which have become synonymous with the gallery, replaced with chronology and minimal information—artist, title and date. The Tate’s website boasts the new hang as “conversational,” which, whilst certainly true, might raise a lot more questions about the nature of displays and museums than the works themselves…

Richard Dorment gives it 5 stars praising the transformation and exclaiming it as “chaos theory at work in the visual arts… art history as it used to be taught before it was hijacked by academic theorists.” True, it’s often frustrating that works of art have been obscured by academic theory, but that’s also true of public popularity (Mona Lisa anyone?).  The Independent’s review calls it a “triumph” for similar reasons, stressing how Tate Britain has now become a space where artists can be thought of in terms of themselves. Certainly, this is often overlooked but if that is all the re-hang should be, then surely it should be re-titled ‘A Walk Through British Artists.’

Photo by observista via Flickr.

Armed with a skeleton of information what can really be discerned? A picture may be worth a thousand words, but it doesn’t speak them. Visuals alone cannot tell you if it’s representative of a wider trend or an example of a patron’s obscure and/or hidden desires. What about those self-made movements known at the time? A group of artists working towards a particular end, how do we make sense of these with no context?

The buzz around the re-hang felt like those who were excited already had sound art knowledge, both professionally and academically. I’m interested in the ways museums and national galleries accommodate their audience—what role they play in society—and I can’t help but feel that without prior knowledge or an active interest, I’d come away from the new hang with a lot more questions than answers. Theorizing doesn’t dispute that art objects are themselves “primary data,” it simply draws a bigger picture (pardon the pun) to understand it as one part of a whole. On their own, the images cannot account for why, as Dorment later mentions, half the 19th century is squeezed into one gallery, as if Victorians had grown tired at the very idea of commissioning, painting and buying art altogether.

After years of mediocrity—if not in actuality, then in the minds of many—it’d be great if the Tate Britain re-hang did “explode into view…like a walk through Britain itself,” but when there are so many different ways to read a work of art, surely a national collection displaying British heritage in art should guide its audience if nothing else. Art is all about making you think, and although not everything can be answered, isn’t there some sense of duty to ensure all visitors have free and easy access to this information?

If this were to happen, then, as Art History News points out, providing the finer details of some works would create an interesting narrative that would otherwise be lost. For example, instead of tacking a Van Eyck on towards the end of a gallery with no indication of his important role in the development of British portraiture, some background could illuminate his influence on his contemporaries.

Among all the positive critical response, there was finally a review that spoke of what there was, rather than what there was not, in the re-hang. In a much more muted tone, the Guardian notes that the new hang has taken a “middle course,” with short explanations widening historical and political issues. Less radical and more a new way to engage art with its audience? Maybe, but as Grumpy Art Historian asks, if the Tate’s Director, Penelope Curtis, and its Head of Displays, Chris Stephens, feel traditional methods of display are outdated why not adapt to compliment and promote newer ideas?

Photo by alh1 via Flickr.

The opportunity this shake-up has afforded hasn’t been promising so far: little information in the brochure, some sort of paid app/audio guide system and no clear means for gallery attendants to engage visitors with the tablets that have replaced their folder references. If this is the brave new world of the digital age in a museum setting, it needs a little work. It also raises some important questions: Has the information simply been transferred to digital? Will there be other ways to explore the collection, perhaps similar to the Google Art Project with hi-res close-ups? What about those who for whatever reason aren’t interested in getting involved with technology?

There’s the role of the curator to consider too. If everything is to be discovered “surfing,” this new display and the dismissal of three of the historical curatorial team last spring makes for a slightly alarming prospect. This may have more to do with the fact that over the half galleries in the re-hang are dedicated to the 20th Century—leaving the remaining half for the preceding 300 years of British art—although considering the specialisations of both Curtis and Stephens this is unsurprising. You might ponder, as Bendor Grosvenor does, what is Tate Modern for? To which my answer would be, international modern and contemporary art mostly, which is probably one of the reasons it is seen as the more suave of the two Tates.

Freedom of interpretation is essential—everyone brings their own stories to the viewing of artwork—but passing this off in the form of chronology—which is itself loaded with meaning—calling it revolutionary and suggesting that curatorial intervention has been removed is all a bit much. After all, the Tate Britain collection is much bigger than what’s on display, and we know neither the selection process or what else remains in storage. And, let’s not even mention the lack of explanation as to why the sponsorship is so distractingly prominent

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Have you been to Tate Britain’s new re-hang? What do you think? Have you visited other galleries and museums with a similar display philosophy? What works and what doesn’t? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

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Currently residing in Paris, Isobel is an art history graduate with a serious case of wanderlust. Interested in cross-cultural relations, cultural heritage and the social role of museums, she’s looking forward to continuing her studies come September and getting to see the re-hang for herself. Find her on Twitter at @isobelkwc.

2 Responses to “Guest Post: Thoughts on Tate Britain’s New Re-Hang”

  1. Edwin Torres on June 26th, 2013

    The re-hang has coincided with the near completion of a long-term refurbishment of the building (the front entrance won’t reopen until November) which allows the gallery to be shaped into an outer ring of 29 galleries – containing the permanent collection – and eight inner areas, focusing on individual artists, works or subjects, that will be changed every spring and autumn. Designated space has also been made for the museum’s major bequests of work by Turner, Blake and Henry Moore.

  2. Isobel on August 6th, 2013

    UPDATE:
    Got a chance to see the new hang before viewing the stunning L.S. Lowry exhibition (on until October, go see it if you have the chance!) Still not convinced as I did notice more than a few confused looking members of the general public and no visitor assistants/volunteers were very forthcoming with help or information despite them being armed with tablets . However, it’s definitely worth repeat visits which maybe, is exactly what Tate Britain needs.

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