National Gallery to 'come out of exile' after 111 days in lockdown

Mark Brown Arts correspondent
Photograph: Simon Dawson/Reuters

The National Gallery in London will reopen to visitors on 8 July with three one-way art routes of about 25-35 minutes through the collections and a promise that people will be allowed to linger.

The gallery will be the first big museum to open in England after the government announced it was easing the lockdown from 4 July.

Its director, Gabriele Finaldi, said it felt like the gallery was coming “out of exile” after 111 days of closure.

“All of us at the National Gallery felt a responsibility of reopening as soon as we could. The tradition here is one of resilience, staying open through the war years and so on, so we felt the weight of that responsibility and we wanted to be there for the visiting public as soon as we possibly could.”

It will reopen seven days a week with all visitors having to prebook time slots online. Once at the gallery they can walk through the collection on one of three art routes.

Route A will take visitors from the Wilton Diptych to Raphael; route B from Rubens to Van Gogh; and route C from Bronzino to Van Gogh.

Finaldi said the routes had been given approximate timings of 25-35 minutes but they will not be compulsory. “People will of course be allowed to linger … we want people to feel they can visit the gallery freely.” If a room gets busy staff may ask people to move on.

Visitors will be encouraged to wear face coverings and the distancing will be 2 metres. There will also be high-efficiency filters in the air conditioning, perspex panels at visitor desks, enhanced cleaning and hand sanitisers.

Finaldi said it was “hugely exciting” to be reopening and symbolic to be first.

“We want to be a part of the nation’s recovery story and by opening the doors and letting the public back in to see our inspiring pictures, we want to make an important contribution to the process,” he said. “We are the same gallery you know and love, just with added social distancing and one-way art routes.”

How keen people would be to return to galleries remained an unknown, Finaldi said. He pointed to the example of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, where it took five years after 9/11 for numbers to return to normal.

About 65% of the National Gallery’s visitors are normally tourists and they, of course, will be largely absent.

Visitors were going to see some changes in the gallery, Finaldi said, including the reopening of its largest room, which houses Italian Baroque paintings, after a two-year restoration.

Van Dyck’s monumental Equestrian Portrait of Charles I will be back on show in Room 21 after more than two years, after conservation work.

The Titian: Love, Desire and Death exhibition will also reopen. Photograph: Guy Bell/Rex/Shutterstock

The gallery’s Titian: Love, Desire, Death exhibition, which closed after only three days, will also reopen and has been extended until 17 January 2021.

Tate announced it would reopen its four galleries, Tate Modern, Tate Britain, Tate St Ives and Tate Liverpool, on 27 July.

Maria Balshaw, the Tate’s director, said: “Art and culture play vital roles in our lives, and many of us have been craving that irreplaceable feeling of being face-to-face with a great work of art.

“Our top priority remains that everyone stays safe and well, so we will continue to monitor the situation in the weeks ahead, work closely with government and colleagues, and make all the changes necessary for a safe reopening.”

The Royal Academy of Arts will open for “friends” on 9 July and the public on 16 July. The Barbican art gallery will reopen on 13 July and the Whitechapel gallery on 14 July.