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At the end of June 2020, the National Portrait Gallery building in St Martin’s Place, London closed until Spring 2023 in order for essential building works to take place on Inspiring People, the Gallery’s biggest ever re-development. The project will transform the Gallery with a comprehensive re-display and re-presentation of the Collection from the Tudors to now across 40 renewed galleries, combined with a complete refurbishment of the building.

Before the building works could begin, all the portraits on display had to be taken down and safely packed away in order to be transported to other venues or temporarily placed in storage. Here Edward Purvis, Head of Collections Services, offers a behind the scenes look at this Gallery decant process and discusses the additional challenges of undertaking this mammoth task in the midst of a pandemic.

The Gallery is pleased to report that the decant of displayed works has now been successfully completed. The Gallery has not undertaken such a huge move since portraits were evacuated to Buckinghamshire during the Second World War.

As one might expect, the Gallery first and foremost was fortunate to have an incredibly dedicated and skilled team of collections care professionals to manage the process. They were supported by colleagues from right across the Gallery to ensure efficient delivery of the project. External services, such as transport and additional expertise for very large works, were procured as necessary to ensure that all elements of the project were managed in a cohesive way.

20th Century Galleries decant
The Conservation team at work in the 20th Century Galleries

The first step the Gallery took was to undertake an initial conservation assessment of all the 1,000 works on display. Over the course of the last year, early in the morning before the Gallery had opened, the Conservation and Art Handling teams diligently assessed all works in situ. In total this took an impressive 240 hours and laid all important foundation work for the de-install.

Planning carried on into 2020, but the nation’s lockdown back in March brought understandable challenges for us all, both professionally and in our private lives. The Gallery is fortunate to have strong remote access to its systems, meaning that critical planning for decant was largely unaffected throughout the Government measures. I, for one, never thought I would be doing so much decant planning from my bedroom desk!

Although the impact of Coronavirus has naturally brought many hurdles in the past few months, every single one of the Gallery’s collection care procedures had to be painstakingly re-designed to minimise transmission of the virus. Safety has always been at the heart of what we do when moving art, however, the scale of the moves meant the Gallery naturally had to put in additional staff routing, hygiene and handling procedures ahead of any on-site work starting. This was all done in line with the Government’s guidance.

Queen Victoria decant
Art Handlers de-install a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I

Another challenge was maintaining effective communication with colleagues from across the Gallery, especially those working remotely. The Gallery embraced the use of Microsoft Teams and other platforms to continue the effective management of the project, whilst also updating key stakeholders along the way.

The crisis has yielded many opportunities though, some of which I hope will have a lasting legacy. The Gallery was able to learn much from peers going through similar logistical challenges, and conversely, staff also took the opportunity to share knowledge and expertise in new ways. The pandemic also forced us to make processes more efficient and streamlined; this will have a powerful legacy as we develop planning during closure.

It’s also been a chance for innovation, the building of new partnerships, and lastly, and by no means least, a time to support the nation’s care workers. The Gallery, in common with many of its peers, donated 800 pairs of surplus nitrile gloves to the NHS in April.

Victorian Galleries decant
The Victorian Galleries

This move is not just a means to an end in itself. The Inspiring People Project also represents a unique opportunity to have unimpeded access to key works that would otherwise normally be on public display. The Conservation team will capitalise on the Gallery’s temporary closure to treat many iconic works, including meeting the public need to display more works on paper and time-based media upon re-opening. This will ensure the Gallery’s works will look their best for re-opening, or if required for short term loan during closure.

18th Century Galleries decant
The 18th Century Galleries

The decant is an achievement that all staff can share in and be proud of, not least because it has involved so many, but also due to the extra challenges encountered and overcome. The skills, knowledge and experience developed during this huge project will now inform reinstallation planning and future Gallery projects.


Got something to say?

Anna Pilgrim

10 April 2021, 22:43

Do you know what will happen to the Tudor portrait collection? Is there anywhere I could go and see it before the gallery reopens in 2023?


21 December 2020, 13:18

Hi Susan,

Thank you for your message. Throughout the Gallery’s closure and redevelopment we will be sharing behind the scenes stories from the conservation studio, please do check-in, or alternatively sign up to our monthly newsletters for regular updates.

All the best.

Susan Petrrie

19 December 2020, 10:39

I would like to have more about the conservation assessments. What were they looking for. How was this recorded. What will be done. I'm not quite sure why there was so much on COVID compliance: surely we are all familiar with that.


08 December 2020, 09:07

Thank you for your comment. We have now added an additional paragraph to the start of the post to provide more context about the work that has recently been undertaken at the Gallery. You can find out more about the Gallery’s transformation here:

Michael Duggan

08 December 2020, 08:58

The article is much clearer now, thank you.

Kathryn Rimmington

06 December 2020, 19:02

Agree with some of the previous comments. Although I know what 'decant' means in the context of art galleries, it is far from clear what the overall aims are.
Thank you.


04 December 2020, 12:03

An interesting and (quite) informative article on what is and will become a major project in the gallery’s history. A fantastic opportunity to share some of the fascinating behind the scenes activities, such as filming conservators at work on various materials, wood, pigments, canvas, lining, restretching etc.
I feel the article only scratches the surface of a great opportunity. Could this be developed to offer an in depth on going commentary on the progress of the gallery’s transformation and of its content?

To start at the beginning, however, will someone offer to illuminate us? ... There’s an awful lot of “decanting” and “de-installing” going on and I add the same request to the volley of unanswered questions above.

Ray Chalmers

04 December 2020, 08:50

I hope you looked after the self portrait of Laura Knight carefully and the amazing 'Returned Soldier' by Charles Blackman which you had the good sense to purchase in the sixties from the Whitechapel Gallery exhibition of antipodeans. I wish you well !

Michael Duggan

04 December 2020, 07:29

I don't understand what you mean by "decant" and ir is not really explained here. Where are the artworks being decanted to? I am sure I am not the only one who is puzzled.

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