In light of recent news that Aberdeen Art Gallery was one of five winners of the UK Art Fund’s Museum of the Year Award, I took some time to reflect on my first visit there. The Aberdeen Art Gallery reopened just under a year ago after four years of extensive renovations. I first visited during the gallery’s inaugural week, which gave me the added benefit of seeing everything in its brand-new state. It also gave me a chance to evaluate the curatorial decisions made around visitor experience when rebranding the gallery.
The exterior entrance to the gallery with its refurbished copper roof is subtle but stylish. Upon entering the gallery, visitors are greeted by a warm entrance hall with striking granite Ionic columns, a café to the left, and a gift shop to the right. The entrance hall is separated from the main gallery by glass walled arches, allowing visitors to see into the sculpture gallery whilst still working as a sound barrier.
This open view also makes for a spectacular glimpse at the new architectural features, such as the large skylight built into the extended top floor, which bathes the sculpture gallery and the balcony it overlooks with natural light, drawing visitors inside. Having heard mixed reviews about the addition of modern architectural features, I was pleasantly surprised by the tasteful combination of old and new. I was informed by a member of staff that most of the materials from the old building had been reused in the new one, both an ecologically conscious decision, and a good way of linking the past with the present.
Once inside, a visitor’s path through the gallery is guided by the room numbers, which act as a suggestion for how to proceed. The paintings are not displayed chronologically but by themes, meaning it makes no difference in which order one moves through the galleries. There is no particular focus on any work in any one gallery. While there are many works by famous artists such as Renoir, Degas, or Bacon, these are not signposted in a way different from the others, enabling visitors to walk around the gallery without any preconceived favouritism. Each work of art is treated with the same level of importance in terms of signposting and labelling.
The main curatorial decision visible framing the galleries is to sort the contents of the AAG into different themes rather than chronologically. Each of the 21 galleries has a different theme, allowing visitors to see the works in refreshingly new ways. While some galleries such as Gallery 10 (‘French Impressions’) contain works of art from the same period, others such as Gallery 18 (‘People and Portraits’), contain works from different time periods, allowing visitors to compare and contrast. The themes become obvious through different aspects of each work of art. While each gallery’s theme is printed on the wall in large lettering, the colour of the walls and the modes of display also help bring the themes to life. In the ‘French Impressions’ gallery for example, the pale blue colour of the walls reflects en plein air painting, a key feature of Impressionist painting that refers to the way Impressionist painters worked outdoors. The paintings themselves also correspond to their themes through their subject matter, such as portraits and seaside images, or through their style and technique, such as Impressionism and Abstract Art. With more abstract themes, such as Gallery 4’s ‘Human Presence’ there are prompts and extra guides for adults as well as children with more information and explanations about the contemporary works of art.
Gallery 7 (‘Exploring Art’) in particular has several prompts and general tips on how to approach looking at art, which creates a more interactive way of displaying work. While the paintings and objects are displayed along the wall in frames or display cases, they are accompanied by a ribbon-like information board that runs around the room below the works of art containing some facts about the history of art, or things to do, such as puzzling activities, or even the opportunity to create your own still life image with magnetic images. In this room, the movement through the gallery is interrupted by several activities and interactive screens, as well as conversation starting prompts.
Sometimes, however, the overwhelming display affects the reception of works of art. Gallery 18 (‘People and Portraits’) contains a large ‘Portrait Pod’, a box room in the centre of the gallery that encourages visitors to dress up and create their own portraits. While this is an excellent way to enhance the gallery’s theme, the pod itself obstructs the view of the portraits. Due to the lack of space, it is impossible to take a step back and view larger portraits, such as Ken Currie’s impressively haunting Gallowgate Lard (1995-1996). Gallery 10 (‘French Impressions’) enjoys a subtler theme with a less obtrusive mode of display, thus enhancing the experience of viewing the artworks. In a clever move, this gallery juxtaposes French artists with British artists, allowing visitors to make direct comparisons of how Impressionism panned out in Britain.
Moving up to the newly added second floor, one emerges into a bright, open space. Having the special exhibition gallery on this floor provides plenty of extra space to host large crowds for events (in a pre/post-Covid world). The L-shaped temporary exhibition gallery has several versatile features, such as moveable ceiling lights and moveable panels that enable curators to change the exhibition space. Having this gallery on a separate floor from the permanent exhibition means that visitors can go straight to the top floor or work their way through the permanent exhibition later ending with the special exhibition. The café on this floor also offers a nice break halfway through the visit.
The visitor experience at Aberdeen Art Gallery is extremely inclusive and well thought out. The gallery map, which can be taken from boxes placed around the gallery for a suggested £1 donation, includes information about each gallery, as well as accessibility information, and activities available throughout the gallery. AAG has also made sure that their space and its contents, as well as the experience of visiting, appeals to people of all ages. As each room has a different theme and feel to it, there is ultimately something there for everyone.
Children are encouraged to engage with the paintings and ask questions in response to trails and signs in each room. The many interactive screens, sketching activities, touchable objects and the portrait pod give children something to do whilst also teaching them about art. Portable stools are also available for children to carry around the gallery that enable them to be closer to eye-level with the paintings. An extra ‘Learning Space’ in the back room of the gallery provides a room for school groups to do further activities. For adults, there are information panels and leaflets with further information, such as a booklet called ‘Human Presence Unpacked’ explaining the more complex ideas behind the works in Gallery 4 (‘Human Presence’). There are audio guides available, as well as a playlist with music to accompany the viewing experience. The McBey library offers a quiet space to do further research with the large collection of art history books available. Its entrance is not very obvious however, causing visitors to overlook it or dismiss it as a ‘staff only’ area.
The AAG has made an extra effort to be accessible to people with disabilities. While there is no braille available in the gallery (something which will hopefully be added soon), they offer large print labels as well as magnifying glasses in each room. There are also audio guides accompanying the works of art throughout. Assistance dogs are also permitted. Wheelchairs are available to borrow at reception, but there are also portable chairs that people can take with them, which can be used for small breaks throughout the gallery. In addition, the AAG runs a ‘Quiet Time’ every Monday afternoon during which all background sound effects are switched off, allowing people with autism to go through the gallery without disturbances.
While Aberdeen Art Gallery’s focus on inclusivity and interactivity is praiseworthy, the focus on an exciting visitor experience in some instances distracts from the art a bit too much. The paintings and sculptures occasionally get lost in attempts to create an innovative mode of display. While this still provides a fun and educational visit for the general public, I (as a History of Art student) sometimes overlook the artwork itself by focusing too much on the extra information and activities. That being said, I still love this thematic way of exhibiting art that encourages as many people as possible to enjoy and learn from the collection.
In general, the Aberdeen Art Gallery along with the new P&J Live Exhibition Centre near Dyce will hopefully be an opportunity for Aberdeen to become a cultural destination for tourists, as well as offering locals some new things to do in their spare time (again, post-Covid). There is a pleasant effort directed towards helping people understand art beyond just the aesthetics of a painting, and in my personal opinion, the general mix of old and new works in the gallery’s favour, complementing the variety on display.
I am looking forward to making another visit to the Aberdeen Art Gallery soon, but until my next trip to Aberdeen, I will have to be content with browsing through the extensive collection on their website.
Aberdeen Art Gallery general opening hours: Wednesday - Monday (10am-4pm)
Admission is free.
For more information on the collection and current opening hours visit Aberdeen Art Gallery’s website at:
* * *
Maya Büchner is a British-German postgraduate student of Museum Studies at the University of Glasgow. She earned her MA in History & History of Art at the University of Aberdeen during which she undertook a work experience with the National Trust. Maya has been a regular museum goer since her childhood and aims to specialise in Collections Management or Visitor Experience with a focus on making museums accessible to a wider audience.