Exhibitions and displays policy

May 2022

1. Introduction

The Exhibition and Displays programme at the National Portrait Gallery plays a central role in helping the institution achieve its core objectives and aims to:

  • Increase the understanding of and engagement with the Collection and its subjects through outstanding research, displays and exhibitions, interpretation, education, access, publishing, national, international and digital programmes.
  • Maintain, extend and broaden the range of audiences and increase our understanding of those audiences.
  • Develop and explore issues in portraiture with a view to contextualising and increasing an understanding of British history and portraiture in general.
  • Increase and extend our national and international connections and profile.

Exhibitions and Displays are selected with the intention of achieving an inclusive and balanced programme. The programme is core to the Gallery’s creative and economic ambitions, and central in responding to and developing the diversity of the Gallery’s audiences. Exhibitions and Displays are managed in accordance with the Gallery’s high standards of governance to ensure the selection process is transparent and in conjunction with our Equality and Diversity Action Plan and Sustainability Strategy.

The aim of this policy document is to provide a clear summary of the Gallery’s exhibition and displays activities, in particular outlining the criteria by which the programme is decided, and the way in which individual exhibitions and displays are selected. Loan exhibitions and the two annual portrait competitions form an important part of the overall financial management of the Gallery, through ticket income, sponsorship, event hire, touring income, catering, related publications and retail sales.  

Knowledge about our audiences is developed through market research and surveys carried out regularly during the year. The evaluation of each exhibition, as well as some key displays, is fed into discussions about future programming.

Risks (across all areas) for exhibitions and displays are managed through the separate Departmental Exhibitions and Displays Risk Register and individual project risk registers. These are monitored by the Heads of Exhibitions and Curatorial and the Exhibitions Managers respectively, with individual gallery departments taking responsibility for their specific updates. Presentation, sustainability (maintaining our audience and environmental concerns) and value for money are also reviewed at regular meetings and in discussion with the Director.

The Director provides the Trustees with a regular report on exhibitions and displays at their quarterly meetings. Particular topics or areas of development are brought to the Curatorial Committee for discussion prior to the Trustee meeting. A report on Exhibitions is presented to the Trustees annually. 

2.  Scope

This policy covers all National Portrait Gallery exhibitions and displays onsite, including those that tour to other venues.  However, it does not cover the full range of National and International Programmes and other collaborative activities [National and International Strategy, in revision]. Collaborative exhibitions and displays are a key element of the National Programme and Gallery closure has seen core elements of the collection on tour in the UK. There is the potential for displays to be curated with and by partners offsite to be shown at the Gallery from time to time and national learning activities will produce some displays.

3.  Definitions

Exhibitions – means larger-scale exhibitions staged at the National Portrait Gallery usually involving works borrowed from external sources (private collections, museums, artists and private foundations) and from the Gallery’s own collections, as well as the two annual competitions. Exhibitions typically involve an admission charge and are located on the ground floor Wolfson and Lerner Galleries or on the first floor Galleries.   Each space houses three exhibitions a year.  These are currently arranged on a spring (February – May), summer (June – September) and autumn (October – January) basis.  The Portrait Award features annually in the summer slot and the Photographic Portrait Prize annually in the autumn slot both take place in first floor Gallery.

Curatorial Committee – is the forum to present and discuss the strategic direction of the Exhibition Programme with the Committee, which comprises Trustees, the Director, Chief Curator and Executive Director of Programmes & Partnerships.

The Exhibition Committee – is the senior management forum responsible for advising the Director on the strategic direction and content of the programme of Exhibitions.  The Committee is made up of the Director, Executive Director of Programmes & Partnerships, Head of Exhibitions, Chief Curator, Heads of Curatorial, Head of International, Chief Financial Officer, Director of Communications & Digital, Director of Participation & Learning, Director of Commercial, Director of Development

The Exhibitions Project Management Meeting – is the forum for updating on forthcoming exhibitions across project teams. The meeting is made up of relevant colleagues from Exhibitions, Curatorial, Publications, Retail, Marketing, Communications, Digital, Design, Estates, Collections, Development, Learning, Security, Visitor Services, Press and Finance

Temporary Displays – smaller scale presentations mainly involving works from the Gallery’s own Collection and external loan material.  These displays, special interventions and contemporary projects are located at various points within the permanent collections and public areas.  Displays co- curated by partners involved in the Gallery’s National Programme can be shown onsite. At least one display a year is managed by the Learning team and contributes to the Gallery’s overall objectives in Learning and Audience Development

The Displays Committee Meeting – is the forum which generates new content for displays from the Collection, reviews external ideas and serves to advise the Chief Curator on the displays programme. It is made up of members of the Curatorial team, Head of National Programmes, Director of Learning and Engagement and the Interpretation Editor

Studio Gallery Development and Planning Meeting – the forum which discusses content planning for the Learning and Engagement Studio Displays. These meetings will be led by the Director of Learning and Engagement.

Operations Meeting – is the forum for sharing information on agreed exhibitions and displays in all areas of onsite planning with relevant staff across the Gallery in Buildings, Collections, Exhibitions, Learning, Communications, Visitor services, Retail

Programme Group – is the forum for discussion about the wider on-site programme including exhibitions, displays, projects and events and is responsible for consideration of the programme by season, ensuring a holistic view of activity.  The Programme Group is made up of the Executive Director, Programmes and Partnerships (Chair), Chief Curator, Chief Operating Officer, Chief Financial Officer, Director of Communications & Digital, Director of Learning & Engagement, Director of Commercial, Director of Development and Head of Exhibitions

4. Legal basis

Museums and Galleries Act 1992 clause 2 (3)(d) and 5(4)


DCMS Protection national cultural objects: http://www.culture.gov.uk/what_we_do/cultural_property/default.aspx

DCMS immunity from seizure provision:


The Policy adheres to the Gallery’s Collections Management framework – the Collections Information and Access Policy; the Conservation and Collections Care Policy; and the Collections Due Diligence Policy.

5. Statement of Principles


The selection criteria for individual exhibitions are governed by the following factors and the overall programme – which is assessed on a 2 to 5 yearly basis – should include and explore the following themes/areas:

  • Different media (e.g. photography, paintings, works on paper, sculpture, multi-media, new media)
  • Biography
  • Monographs (focussing on the work of an individual artist or photographer)
  • Historical range (covering the collection periods and beyond)
  • Art historical movements
  • Contemporary practice, including the open competitions (Portrait Award and Photographic Portrait Prize)

Exhibition Programme Ambitions:

  • Bring recognition and acclaim through an ambitious programme
  • Discussions around British identity and contemporary developments in portraiture
  • Ensure a balanced and diverse programme
  • Support the Gallery’s academic profile and accommodate periods of research for in-house curators
  • Encourage ideas and curatorial involvement from outside the institution
  • Include themes with a national and global outlook
  • Cover popular subjects and artists, as well as academic or specialist topics
  • Attract repeat and new target audiences
  • Innovative interpretation that enhances an engagement with portraiture, history and contemporary issues
  • Illustrate our commitment to the development of portraiture, enabling artists and contemporary conversations
  • Maximise the use of digital, including online and future technologies
  • Respond to changing audience interests and enable them to see how the NPG has changed
  • Drive footfall for maximum attendance
  • Grow revenue through ticket sales and secondary spend
  • Increase membership
  • Respond to Funders motivations (current issues, impact)
  • Bring international recognition and income through ambitious touring programme
  • Set a framework for all exhibitions to be considered by

Any such programme is also considered in terms of whether it:

  • Follows the Gallery’s sustainability policy (in review), manages resources effectively and responsibly.
  • Provides scope for raising substantial revenue against managed costs across each financial year.
  • Maximises its impact and economic benefit through the length of its run.

Exhibitions are generally accompanied by a publication produced by the Gallery’s in-house publishing team and specially developed retail merchandise.

A number of exhibitions tour nationally and/or internationally – this includes photographic exhibitions which normally tour to two or three venues either in the UK or abroad; or larger painting and mixed media exhibitions, which often tour internationally, and may involve a collaboration with another partner or partners. The Gallery also organises additional touring exhibitions drawn from the Collection which are not shown at the Gallery and are managed through the National and International Programmes.


The National Portrait Gallery has two main spaces for temporary displays: Room 16 and 33. Other areas of the Gallery may be used from time to time. Displays usually run for a period of 12 months, but in some instances we shorten the display term to accommodate other internal or external demands and depending on the material to be displayed.

In general terms the programme should be:

  • Insightful - allowing opportunities for a range of diverse voices and approaches that might compliment or add depth to the displays in the galleries, some of which may be curated externally and on occasion allow for the loan of high-quality portraits from external sources.
  • Inclusive – Maintaining and expanding Contemporary Perspectives (highlighted in Inspiring People) by displaying and juxtaposing historical and contemporary works to reflect on how the past informs the present and using the present as a lens to inspect the past.
  • Opportunistic – focusing on the celebration of anniversaries, topical events or new acquisitions
  • Responsive – have the flexibility to utilise and respond to ideas received externally that relate to the Gallery core areas of interest including themes in Inspiring People, and the Collection and Exhibitions Programme
  • Resourceful – focusing on the display of recent acquisitions or newly commissioned portraits or the presentation of work developed as part of existing research projects
  • Exploratory – with a focus on specific events, individuals or strengths within the collection, often using fragile material that can only be shown for a limited period.
  • Imaginative– to provide insights into the practice of portraiture across the (in the historic, modern and contemporary periods) and to explore our collections and the core themes of British History in new and engaging contexts.

As a museum that explores portraiture as an art form as well as a record of significant figures in British history and culture, the NPG has endeavoured to keep pace with contemporary developments in art practices. This is developed through our Collections Development Policy. Just as photography revolutionised the portrait in the nineteenth century, so digital, the internet and social media have transformed our understanding of what a portrait might be with today’s visual media – AR, VR and mixed reality - leading artists into new territory. We are currently exploring new ways of presenting contemporary art both within and outside the building in order to sustain and develop visitor interest.

6. Management

The Board of Trustees, together with the Curatorial Committee, determines overall policy and comments on the combined programme of exhibitions and displays at its quarterly meetings but delegates responsibility to the Director. Individual responsibilities are then managed as follows:


The Director has overall responsibility for the strategy, presentation and wider role of the Gallery’s Exhibitions and Displays programme.
The Executive Director of Programmes & Partnerships leads the strategy for the Exhibitions programme.
The Head of Exhibitions leads the planning and development of the Exhibitions programme.

The Exhibition Curator leads the exhibition project in all curatorial aspects - researching and establishing the concept for an exhibition and catalogue/publication.
The National Portrait Gallery Curator provides a link with an external curator and leads the exhibition project in relation to all curatorial aspects with regard to the concept and intellectual content and presentation of the exhibition and the development of the catalogue.

The Head of International Programmes leads on putting in place partnerships for exhibitions that are able to tour internationally.

The Head of National Programmes leads on putting in place partnerships for exhibitions that tour in the UK.
The Exhibitions Manager leads on the organisation and management of exhibitions, including planning and delivery of touring exhibitions.
The Exhibitions Project Team (made up of representatives across the Gallery) is responsible for the delivery of the exhibition within the Gallery via monthly project management meetings.


The Chief Curator has responsibility for the Gallery’s Displays programme.

The Head of Collections Services, the Curatorial team, the Interpretation Editor and Collections Services staff are responsible for the day-to-day organisation and practical management of displays.

7.  Procedures for proposal


The Gallery’s Exhibitions programme is agreed 2-5 years in advance.

  • Proposals for Exhibitions are accepted from both internal and external sources. A standard template is employed when preparing exhibition proposals.  This is available internally on the Gallery’s network, and externally by request from the Exhibitions department. 
  • All exhibition proposals are considered first by either the Executive Director of Programmes and Partnerships or the Head of Exhibitions in discussion with the Director. The Exhibition Committee considers proposals that meet the Gallery’s Exhibition and Displays Policy.
  • The Exhibition Committee meets four times a year (every two months) to discuss proposals and is chaired by the Director.
  • The Executive Director of Programmes and Partnerships or the Head of Exhibitions will communicate all successful and unsuccessful proposals that are considered by the Exhibition Committee.


The Displays programme is usually agreed at least 12 months ahead but also allows some flexibility to respond to events.

  • Proposals for Displays are accepted from both internal and external sources.
  • The Displays Committee meets four times and year and is chaired by the Chief Curator.
  • The Operations Meeting is every fortnight and is usually chaired by the Head of Collections Services or another member of the senior team.
  • The Chief Curator or relevant curator will communicate all successful and unsuccessful proposals via the displays commissioning minutes and letters to external parties.

8. Review

This policy will be reviewed every 3 years.  Next review: May 2025

9. Date approved

Approved by the Trustees of the National Portrait Gallery at the 788th meeting on 11 May 2022.

Additional material

The following additional papers are available on request:

  • Gallery’s Publishing Policy
  • Ed Purvis, Head of Collections Services
  • Rosie Wilson, Head of Exhibitions
  • 30 March 2022