Bristol Museum & Art Gallery is the guardian of an impressive fine art collection, and is particularly strong in French 19th century painting and British 19th and 20th century art. Bristol also has a significant number of Old Master paintings, include Italian, French, German, English, and Netherlandish paintings and works on paper. Artists represented include Lukas Cranach, Giovanni Bellini, and Jacob van Ruisdael.
The focus of this study day was the five main picture galleries, which recently reopened after a refurbishment project of four and a half years, and which resulted in a redisplay of the artworks as well as a re-evaluation and re-interpretation of the collection. The last space to reopen on 21 May 2016 was the Old Masters Gallery, hosting the National Gallery’s 2016 Masterpiece Tour of Rembrandt’s Self Portrait at the Age of 63.
The study day was introduced by Ray Barnett, Head of Collections for the Bristol Culture team, who discussed the history of the museum and the inception of the refurbishment project, which began in 2006.
Curator of Fine Art pre-1900 and SSN member Dr Jenny Gaschke then took over to expand on how the art collections were displayed prior to the refurbishment, before leading the group on a tour of the galleries, explaining in detail the curatorial concepts behind the display and some of the decisions which the team made throughout the process.
Jenny also discussed some of the logistical elements, one example being the addition of a lift to the picture galleries in 2011 which expanded access to the level and created a new flow of movement through the spaces. At present there are no decorative objects positioned in the central spaces of the galleries, as was the case previously, thus giving an unimpeded view through the sweep of the galleries.
The galleries were refurbished individually over a period of several years; while a further redevelopment project may be in store for the future, the emphasis of the recent redisplay has been in presenting the collection in a sympathetic setting, rather than a major rethinking of the display. Jenny introduced some of the highlights of the Old Masters gallery, and discussed some potential developments for the future. At present the display case of the Antonio de Solario altarpiece depicting the Virgin and Child with Saint Joseph and Donor (the wings of which are on long loan to Bristol from the National Gallery), does not allow visitors to view the back of the panels, but this is something the curatorial team may want to address in the future.
This tour was then further contextualised by talks from staff from the Learning and Communities, and Digital teams, who described the new initiatives they have implemented to engage their local communities. One case study was the introduction of ESOL tours at the gallery, engaging underrepresented communities which include refugees and asylum seekers. This involved approaching and forming relationships with teachers working with these groups and gaining their trust. The initiative has gone from strength to strength, with several ESOL students now volunteering on the programme at the gallery.
We heard a similar success story regarding new educational workshops now offered to school groups in Bristol. Working in consultation with schools, and offering trial workshops to gain feedback, the team at Bristol devised new programmes which enable young people to engage with the paintings collection through making and performance.
The day concluded with a visit to St Nicholas Church, where the group had the opportunity to view William Hogarth’s Altarpiece for St Mary Redcliffe, and to discuss the future of the work, which has been in the care of Bristol Museum & Art Gallery since the 1950s.
The team at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery found that they needed to remind their local art-loving audiences of the treasures that are held there, and to encourage civic pride in the collection as well as attracting new audiences. They feel that the refurbishment project and the new programmes which engage their local communities have helped them achieve this goal, as well as enabling their own team to rediscover and celebrate their collection.
The SSN would like to thank the team at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery for welcoming our members so warmly and we look forward to hearing about ongoing developments in the new gallery spaces in the future.