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Exhibitions and displays policy

July 2014

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 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.

The Exhibition and Displays programme is designed to achieve a balanced programme both creatively and economically and with consideration of the increasing diversity of the Gallery’s audiences. The programme is developed in accordance with the Gallery’s high standards of governance to ensure the selection process is transparent.

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. Over the last few years increasing and extending our national and international connections has been important and will continue to be over the coming years. 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, 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.

Consideration is given to the risks (across all areas) for exhibitions through the Departmental Exhibition Risk Register and individual project risk registers. These are monitored by the Head of Exhibitions and the Exhibitions Managers respectively. 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 and a report on Exhibitions is presented to the Trustees annually. 

2.  Scope

This policy covers all National Portrait Gallery exhibitions and displays, including those that tour to other venues.  However, it does not cover the full range of National Programmes and other collaborative activities [National Strategy, revised 2010].

3.  Definitions

Exhibitions – means larger-scale exhibitions 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 (currently the BP Portrait Award and the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize).  Exhibitions often involve an admission charge and all are located on the ground floor either in the Wolfson or Porter Galleries.  Some exhibitions that are of a larger scale use the Wolfson and all or part of the Lerner Galleries.

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, Director of Exhibitions & Collections, Head of Exhibitions, Exhibition Managers, Chief Curator, period Curators, Deputy Director and Director of Communications & Development, Director of Participation & Learning, Director of Finance & Planning, Director of Trading, Head of Archive & Library, Head of Business Development, Trading and Head of Communications (see Terms of Reference in Appendices).

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, Publications, Retail, Marketing, Design, Buildings, Collections, Development, Learning, Security, Visitor Services, Press and Curatorial.

Displays – smaller scale presentations mainly involving works from the Gallery’s own collection and occasionally use of external loan material.  These displays, special interventions and contemporary projects are located at various points within the permanent collections and public areas.  At least one display a year is managed by the Learning team and contribute to the Gallery’s overall objectives in Learning and Audience Development.

The Displays Commissioning 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 Participation and Learning and the Interpretation Editor.

The Displays Operations Meeting - is the forum for sharing information on agreed displays with relevant staff across the Gallery in Collections, Learning, Communications, Visitor services, Retail.  

Programme Group – is the forum for discussion about the wider programme including exhibitions, displays, project 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 Director, Deputy Director & Director of Communications and Development, Chief Curator, Director of Exhibitions & Collections, Director of Participation & Learning.

4. Legal basis

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

DCMS Protection national cultural objects:

DCMS immunity from seizure provision:

5. Statement of Principles


The National Portrait Gallery has two major exhibition spaces: the Wolfson and Porter 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 BP Portrait Award features annually in the summer slot in the Wolfson Gallery and the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize annually in the autumn slot in the Porter Gallery.  On occasion the Wolfson Gallery exhibition extends into the Lerner Galleries.

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 Programme.

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

  • Different media (eg. 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 (BP Portrait Award and Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize)

In general terms, the programme should also:

  • support the Gallery’s academic profile and seek to accommodate periods of research for in-house curators.
  • encourage ideas and curatorial involvement from outside the institution.
  • include geographical themes with both a national and global outlook.
  • cover popular subjects and artists, as well as academic or specialist topics.
  • reflect and attract a broad range of audiences in terms of age, social and cultural background.
  • encourage innovative interpretation that enhances an engagement with portraiture, history and contemporary issues.

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

  • follows the Gallery’s sustainability policy, managing 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.


The National Portrait Gallery has nineteen regular display spaces: Room 3 showcases; Room 16; Rooms 17-19 showcases; Rooms 23, 24, 26, 28, 29 showcases; Room 31 showcases; Room 32 Balcony end wall; Room 33 Rooms 37, 37a,  38, 38a, 40,41a and the Main Hall.  It may also make occasional use of other spaces.  Displays usually run for a period of six or nine months, but in some instances we lengthen displays to make resources savings or shorten to term to accommodate other internal or external demands

In general terms the programme should be:

  • Opportunistic – focusing on the celebration of anniversaries and topical events 
  • Responsive – have the flexibility to utilise and respond to ideas received externally that relate to the Gallery core areas of interest
  • 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 sensitive 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 in new and engaging contexts
  • Insightful -  allowing opportunities for a range of different voices and approaches some of which may be curated externally and  on occasion allow for the loan of high-quality portraits from external sources

6. Responsibilities

The Board of Trustees 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 Director of Exhibitions and Collections 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 Exhibitions Manager leads on the organisation and management of exhibitions, including 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 Collection 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 Director or the Head of Exhibitions. The Exhibition Committee considers proposals that meet the Gallery’s Exhibition and Displays Policy.
  • The Exhibition Committee meets six times a year (every two months) to discuss proposals and is chaired by the Director.
  • The Head of Exhibitions or the Director will communicate all successful and unsuccessful proposals.


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.
  • A standard template is available for Gallery Displays and can be found internally on the Gallery’s network.
  • The Displays Commissioning Meeting and the Displays Operations Meeting meets four times a year and are both chaired by the Chief Curator. 
  • The Chief Curator or relevant curator will communicate all successful and unsuccessful proposals via the displays commissioning minutes and letters to external parties.

8. Breach of Policy

Actions taken by staff in contravention of the Gallery’s stated policies or procedures may be treated as a disciplinary offence, to be dealt with in accordance with the Gallery’s Disciplinary and Grievance Procedure.

9. Review - update

This policy will be reviewed every 3 years.  Next review: July 2017

10. Date approved - update

Approved by the Trustees of the National Portrait Gallery at the 741st meeting on 1 July 2010 and reviewed by the Trustees at the 757th meeting on 3 July 2014.

Additional material

The following additional papers are available on request:

  • Exhibitions Committee terms of reference
  • Exhibitions proposal template
  • Gallery Displays Process
  • Gallery Displays proposal template
  • Gallery’s Publishing Policy

Sarah Tinsley, Director of Exhibitions and Collections



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