The National Gallery, London, celebrates its bicentenary with a full-colour Big Birthday Weekend

It will be one big party at the National Gallery in London (10-12 May) which celebrates its 200th anniversary (NG200) with a raft of special events—and some big names—on its Big Birthday Weekend.

On the evenings of Friday 10 May—the bicentenary of the museum’s foundation in 1824—and Saturday 11 May, a specially commissioned history of the museum, its people and its collection, will be projection mapped on to the museum’s panoramic colonnaded facade overlooking Trafalgar Square.

The eight-minute shows, which are free and unticketed and run from 9pm to 11pm for two nights only, feature the voices of curators, art lovers and at least one national treasure (the actor Michael Palin) in telling the institution’s dramatic history, including the measures taken during the Second World War to protect the collection while maintaining the museum as a cultural resource at the height of the London Blitz of 1940 and 1941.

The visuals were created by Nvisible Productions, designed in collaboration with Visual Edgeand Creative Technology. They form a dazzling mix of animation, text—making rich use of the NG200 brand yellow—and images of works and galleries from the museum, covering art from the 13th to 19th centuries, which has evolved, over the past 200 years, to form a collection which, for breadth and quality, is arguably unmatched by any other single museum in the world.

Music and poetry

On 10 May art and music melds when Jools Holland performs in the Rausing Room as part of a curated programme along with other performers including Ruby Turner, Louise Marshall, and Sumudu. Holland told The Times how he visited the gallery as a child with his father in the 1960s. “He would lift me up and I would look at the portraits and I was completely bewitched and enchanted. Because it was like being told a story or it was like stepping into a different world,” the musician said.

On the gallery’s birthday, Ben Okri will read poetry in the galleries while the violinist and composer Anna Phoebe will conjure “soundscapes” in Room 18 where a number of key works by Rubens are displayed (The Judgement of Paris, 1632-35). Last year Okri told The Art Newspaper: “We live in an age of escalating violence. But what we really need is more listening. Art teaches us to listen, to see, to wait for understanding.”

There will also be the opportunity to create some Renaissance selfies thanks to London Drawing, the group known for its Instagram-friendly, head-turning compositions which transform sitters into 16th-century milk maids and courtiers by tweaking paper napkins and contorting pillow cases.

Over the course of the weekend, visitors can place their own works of art and notes on a special birthday cake made from pulped recycled paper by the artist Lucie MacGregor (National Gallery brochures were used to make the arty sweet treat).

National Treasures at home and abroad

As part of the 200th anniversary capital programme, the museum’s Sainsbury Wing is being renovated and reorganised for reopening in May 2025. During the works, some of the museum’s greatest treasures are on loan at home and abroad. A travelling exhibition, Masterpieces from the National Gallery—including Raphael’s The Garvagh Madonna (about 1510–11), Claude Monet’s Irises (about 1914‒17), and John Constable’s, Stratford Mill (1820)—is on show in at the Chimei Museum, Tainan, Taiwan, until 1 September on the fourth and final leg of a 2023-24 tour that has taken in the Shanghai Museum, the National Museum of Korea, Seoul, and the Hong Kong Palace Museum.

On 10 May, 12 museums around the UK launch the National Treasures scheme, with a widely varies series of exhibitions built around 12 great masterpieces loaned by the National Gallery—many of which have never left the museum before—as part of the bicentenary celebrations. The unique late 14th-century gilded Wilton Diptych, made for the private use of King Richard II, which normally hangs at the National Gallery with a collection of gold-ground early Italian paintings, is being shown at the England Room in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, in the context of other royal pieces in gold, ranging from early Middle Ages to the early Renaissance, including the celebrated 9th-century Alfred Jewel and the museum’s early 16th-century Cloth of Gold, the funeral pall of King Henry VII.

A year of celebrations

The Turner prizewinning artist Jeremy Deller will present an ambitious public art piece in Trafalgar Square in July next year marking the close of the 200th anniversary celebrations. His work will be devised in collaboration with four institutions across the UK: The Box in Plymouth, Mostyn in Llandudno, The Playhouse in Derry/Londonderry and Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design in Dundee.

The gallery is progressing with an £85m project to upgrade its Sainsbury Wing entrance and provide new facilities as part of the anniversary initiative. In a recent interview, the gallery’s director, Gabriele Finaldi, outlined the cost of the anniversary events, saying: “The NG200 project will cost around £95m, of which we have already raised £90m—£10m is going for our programme of activities in 2024-25 and the building work will cost £85m.”

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