Creating a National Collection #6 Behind the Scenes: installing the exhibition

26 May 2021

Here at Southampton City Art Gallery, we are so excited to reopen tomorrow and share with visitors our new exhibition, Creating a National Collection: the partnership between Southampton City Art Gallery and the National Gallery (28 May – 4 September). As part of the planning and installation process, lots of choices have been made and help has been given by all of the Southampton team including curators, exhibition officers, conservators, and the front of house team, as well as colleagues from the National Gallery. A real team effort has allowed this project and exhibition to come to life and I’d like to share with you some of the behind the scenes decisions and images of the installation process.

Exhibition plan used during installation

After spending time planning the room layouts using a 3D model 3D-modelling software, it was so amazing seeing the rooms come together in person. Firstly, thinking about paint colours – it was great to choose from a selection of colours for the rooms, and this was made possible using this palette. This technique of using small reproductions of the paintings worked really well and it was great fun to move images around and it helped us make the final paint colour choices. We hope that the paint scheme helps take you on a journey through the exhibition where you will not only see an evolution of Southampton’s collecting but also gems from both Southampton and the National Gallery’s collections.

A mood board of paint colours for the exhibition

Once the colours were chosen, and a few weeks before any installation, the walls were painted. During the next few weeks, and particularly for the rooms at the beginning of the exhibition, works from Southampton’s collection were brought up from the Art Store and placed ready to be hung on the wall.

Co-curators Susanna and Jemma looking at Sofonisba Anguissola’s portrait in the Gallery. Image: Joe Low Photography

It was great to work with the experienced team in Southampton, and it has been a project of passion come to life with the support of a number of people from across teams in Southampton and the National Gallery. As part of the Exhibitions team Jess Whitfield was brilliant throughout the planning stages and during installation as well as the vital art handling of works carried out by the Exhibitions Officers, and crucial condition checking for all works on display by Conservator, Rebecca Moisan. A great deal of conservation work was carried out on a number of the paintings to prepare them for display and you will be able to read about this in a future blog.

Southampton’s Conservator, Rebecca Moisan, condition-checking works prior to installation. Image:  Joe Low Photography

Installation of Southampton’s painting by Thomas Gainsborough. Image: Joe Low Photography

At the beginning of the first week of install for the exhibition, the loaned works from the National Gallery arrived with their courier, Art Handler Jamie Bell, from the National Gallery. These works were our priority to install first, and were condition checked before being installed. The pairings of works from both collections were hung together in each instance in Galleries 2, 3 and 4. I was able to visit some of the works that are now on loan to Southampton either on display at the National Gallery, or in their Stores during my placement in London, but seeing the pairings of works from both collections together side by side on the walls for the first time was a true delight.

The pairing of two works by Thomas Gainsborough from the collections of Southampton City Art Gallery (left) and the National Gallery (right)

In order to be ready for the opening day, lots of attention was paid to several display considerations including spacing on the walls, lighting, the placing of vinyl gallery text, and the inclusion of display cases and sculptures throughout the exhibition. Southampton’s Curator Clare Mitchell, Jo Smith from Southampton City Archives, and Conservator Rebecca Moisan were instrumental in helping to approve materials chosen for cases, which are able to go on show for the duration of the exhibition at appropriate light levels. It is so wonderful to have a variety of documents, books, and images on display and I am grateful to Exhibitions Officer Andy Ball for his assistance with preparing the materials.

Selecting materials and planning the layout for the Conservation display case.

Jemma with the vinyl and exhibition title!

I am so grateful for this wonderful opportunity as a Curatorial Trainee and another dream come true was producing an accompanying book to the exhibition with my co-curator and co-author, Susanna Avery-Quash. It was wonderful to unwrap the first copies of the publication! Please consider purchasing a copy to support Southampton and for a more detailed look into the evolution of Southampton’s collection as well as the long-lasting relationship between Southampton and the National Gallery since 1929 to the present – on sale at the City Art Gallery from tomorrow.

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