In spring 2020, the internationally renowned National Portrait Gallery, London, closed its doors to the public for the biggest transformation to the Gallery since its conception in 1856. This transformation included extensive building renovations as well as a re-imagined brand identity, designed to cultivate a more inclusive and relevant visitor experience for all guests, especially young adults, diverse communities, and school aged children, to better reflect the “changing face of Britain”.
This commitment to authentically challenging the conventions of an age-old institution and the surrounding industry is most palpable through the National Portrait Gallery’s choice to re-conceptualize their collection. Putting talk into action, the Gallery upholds their commitment to represent the diversity of their visitors, creating an inclusive space that brings forgotten stories into the spotlight and introduces new and buried images living in their collections.
The collection re-hang is one element of the vast undertaking that comes with the commitment to redisplay their collection. The promise to challenge stereotypes and showcase new voices means nothing without a tangible change to convention. With their finger on the pulse, the National Portrait Gallery made a ground-breaking decision to integrate new media in their venture to further engage with young audiences, choosing to merge innovation with tradition. This was a symbolic endeavour for the Gallery, embodying their true commitment to a future forward gallery space.
ngx was brought in with a timeline of nine months to plan, design, create, and execute. Working with curators, artists, and museum leadership to guide the gallery through their first foray into digital immersive experiences, the National Portrait Gallery and ngx collaborated on 41 multimedia exhibits, including an AI-powered portrait experience, a captivating animated projection wall featuring some of the National Portrait Gallery’s most stunning portraits, Interactive touch screens, and documentary films.
Our primary approach to the integration was to complement, rather than compete with the art works and the traditional labelling. For centuries, the National Portrait Gallery has acted as a unique conduit for communing with prominent people of the past and so we at ngx wanted our media to be subtle, elegant, and respectful of that history, while also impressing upon the visitor the depth of the history, the scale of the impacts, and their own place in the story.
The task was monumental in many ways. For example, coming to a decision for the large-scale projection wall, both ngx creative teams and the curatorial teams at the National Portrait Gallery had some big decisions to make – which portraits to include in the opening exhibition and how to showcase these major art works in such a large scale animation. With pride, we believe that our take on elegance and subtlety made for an awe-inspiring experience that allows for a new perspective and modern interaction with the portraits while also allowing the visitor to gaze into the past and admire the original technique and vision.
The Playful Portraits, Immersive AI exhibit, was our most intricate work. Visitors are invited to animate the portraits of prominent sitters, which they can find on display in the Gallery, with AI facial tracking. While this was the most technically challenging exhibit – using new and emergent AI technology, the mandate has always been clear – to put the visitor in the world of the sitter, to bring the portrait to life, and to have fun with it. Playful Portraits achieves this, beautifully merging the wonders of the past with the delights of the future.
Nissen Richards Studio
Jamie Fobert Architects