The National Gallery in Trafalgar Square is straining to cope with double the number of visitors it was designed for, and it looking for a 200th-anniversary upgrade.

A couple of years ago, the main entrance to the gallery was shifted from the grand portico to the newish post-modern Sainsbury Wing to improve access. However, that entrance was designed for — an at the time ambitious — capacity of 3 million visitors a year, but double that number of people now visit the gallery.

The modest entrance space can be very crowded, especially during popular exhibitions, and queues often snake outside the building to pass through security and tickets.

The main entrance since 2018 (c) National Gallery

The NG200 anniversary project will address the visitor’s arrival via the public realm in Trafalgar Square and through the Sainsbury Wing into the gallery, with much-improved wayfinding and orientation. They’re also looking to make the entrance more obvious to visitors, as it can seem rather anonymous from a distance compared to the historic frontage facing Trafalgar Square. The anonymity is in part thanks to the backlash from the monstrous carbuncle that was planned for the site, and the new entrance ended up been as timid as possible to get past the critics.

The original design concept envisaged the entrance foyer as being like a crypt, however, and probably unsurprisingly,  visitors generally find this space uninviting, underwhelming and confusing.

So the plans aim to make the entrance a lot more visible and welcoming.

The foyer (c) National Gallery

They will also improve the area outside the gallery, and also create a new Research Centre, which is likely to be sited in the west wing of the Wilkins Building

Commercially, they’re also looking to have more spaces for revenue-generating opportunities — namely events, sales and membership.

The £25-£30 million project needs to be delivered in phases, and they aim for the first phase to be completed by May 2024 — the 200th anniversary of its opening on 10th May 1824 — although down the road in Pall Mall. The current main gallery building opened a decade later in 1834.

With the revamped National Portrait Gallery reopening in 2023, and a revamped entrance to the National Gallery in 2024, there’s a lot of change happening to Trafalgar Square’s cluster of cultural venues.


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  1. John says:

    Thanks Ian for this article, I was not aware of the NG2000 project. Although 20-30M Pounds sounds like a lot of money, it does not go far these days in a rehab project so seeking to achieve a major change to the “new” primary entrance in the Sainsbury Wing may require double or more funds. One has to raise whether this is really necessary given the building has several entrances and the current lining up issue may simply be due to controlling numbers of visitors via one entrance. I like being able to enter the building through secondary entrances, particularly via the cafe in the SE corner, and using the new stair and elevator entrance adjacent. It would be a shame to close these secondary entrances though I have not been in London since Nov 2019 so assume the single entrance policy is simply due to Covid-19 measures which may end once the pandemic ends.
    Major issues not touched on in the project brief description are:
    1) security at entrances and the increasing desire to build airport sized security facilities at major public and governmental buildings.
    2) universal barrier free access: This has become ideological today in new buildings. The NG does have some lifts, but is there sufficient capacity at one entrance. I find the public stairs at the Sainsbury Wing to be grand but disappointing at the bottom, and a long climb, so I usually use the lifts to enter, though walk down the stairs when I leave. If all visitors are required to enter the NG vis the Sainsbury Wing, the vertical circulation using lifts may be challenging. Ideally there would be escalators, but this would be challenging to add.

  2. Melvyn says:

    With tourists numbers likely to be down for the next couple of years now is tge time to take advantage and improve facilities especially as social distancing is likely to remain for much of this year at least .

    The same should apply to theatres where advantage should be taken to improve accessibility and layouts given not all theatres are likely to open due to reduced demand .

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