Cultural Diversity at the National Portrait Gallery
Indira Devi, Maharani of Cooch Behar
by Dorothy Wilding
Themes of identity lie at the heart of our work. The Gallery's policy is to represent people of achievement in British history and culture. This policy has remained constant since our foundation in 1856, and we continually review how to fulfil it and how to respond to the changing nature of society.
This audit of cultural diversity at the Gallery includes research, publications, online resources, exhibitions, displays and projects. Its aim is to highlight the Gallery’s work to date and make research into cultural diversity in our Collection accessible. In addition, our events programme has included a rich mix of activity exploring cultural identity and reflecting the rich diversity of Britain.
Cultural diversity in this context focuses on identity, race and representation. The Gallery seeks to engage and represent BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) communities to reflect the cultural diversity of Britain. BAME is the terminology used in the UK to describe people of non-white descent. The word ‘black’ refers to people with origins in Africa or the Caribbean. The word ‘Asian’ refers to all Asian countries and regions, not to Bangladesh, India and Pakistan only.
We have a continual commitment to acquire works for our Collection where there are key gaps, for example BAME sitters and artists. Recent additions include the largest acquisition of portraits of Afro-Caribbean sitters into our primary collection with the Black is the New Black series of 37 photographs by Simon Frederick and portraits of sitters including Sonia Boyce, John Akomfrah, Benjamin Zephaniah, Stormzy, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Novelist and Prem, Jorja Smith, Adwoa Aboah, Chi Onwurah, Thelma Golden and Duro Olowu, Julie Adenuga, Skepta and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex.
For further information please see our Collections Development Policy
Portraits in the Collection that include representations of BAME (Black, Asian, minority ethnic) people are tagged with term Diversity. This search term is included in the Advanced Collection Search, under Search by Portrait > Subjects and Themes > Theme. Currently there are almost 3000 portraits, including those where the identity of the sitter is yet to be identified.
BAME sitters in the Collection (those whose identity is known) have been tagged in the group BAME sitters.* This search term is included in the Advanced Collection Search (under Search by Person > Group > Sitter grouping) where it can be combined with other filters.
BAME artists in the Collection are tagged in the group BAME artists.* This search term is included in the Advanced Collection Search (under Search by Person > Group > Artist grouping) where it can be combined with other filters.
The People, Portraits and Places page highlights the portraits, sitters, artists in the Collection that are linked to a specific country. Almost 200 countries are included.
* The BAME sitters and BAME artists lists are not comprehensive as the Gallery has not historically collected data on the ethnicity of sitters or artists and this information cannot always be established retrospectively.
Our newest AHRC Doctoral Collaborative Studentship will focus on the Gallery’s links to transatlantic slave trade. In particular, the project seeks to understand the impact of wealth derived from slavery on its founders, donors, and the sitters represented in its portraits, in order to be more transparent about the Gallery’s own history and the legacies of empire in British society today.
Central to our future plans is the the Gallery’s Inspiring People Redevelopment Project:
- There will be a comprehensive redisplay of the Gallery. A core aim of this will be to tell the stories of those who are currently missing or under-represented and to feature multiple voices from multiple sources, including audience participation programmes from a range of communities.
- We will be organising a series of national community and schools outreach programmes, including Faces and Places - a new schools outreach programme in seven London boroughs accompanied by displays in nearby schools, libraries, arts centres and museums and Citizen UK - a project working with local heritage and community partners in London and Wolverhampton to explore stories of migration and movement within the UK.
Exhibitions, display and projects
Cameroon – London (2005)
Display and arts residencies Joseph Chila and Samuel Finlak
The Raj: India and the British 1600-1947 (Winter 1990-1991)
No webpage on the Gallery’s website but the catalogue is The Raj: Indian and the British 1600 – 1974 by C.A. Bayly
- Research Study on Representation of ‘Ethnic Minorities’ in the Collection of the NPG by Caroline Bressey 2001. Sponsored by the Hollick Trust. Research document available in the Heinz Archive and Library
- Black Victorians: Black People in British Art 1800 – 1900. 2005 publication edited by Jan Marsh
- Alternative Histories: Reflections on Middle Eastern and North African Portraiture, Photography, Art, Documentary, Illustration and Fashion Today. Photo essay by Malu Halasa, 2012
View a wide collection of video content on our YouTube channel from past projects to our latest films.
Artist and sitter interviews
Get insights into creating portraiture from BP Portrait Award 2020 artists and their sitters.
Watch our film created to say ‘goodbye’ to the Gallery before we closed for our major transformation project.