Fishing, granite and, most recently, petroleum are among the industries that have played an important role in Aberdeen’s prosperity, but as North Sea oil and gas deposits decline, the city is looking for new economic opportunities. One of these is tourism, which is a central part of the council’s ongoing £1bn capital programme.
The £34.6m redevelopment of Aberdeen Art Gallery is one of the flagship projects for the programme. The venue, which had been closed since 2015, re-emerged in November last year after a complex and much-delayed building programme to reclaim its place at the cultural heart of Scotland’s third largest city.
The venue first opened in 1885 and was designed in a neoclassical style by the architect Alexander Marshall Mackenzie. Like many Victorian museums across the UK, it was in desperate need of investment.
A leaking roof, humidity problems and a building that could not cope with today’s extreme weather conditions are among the problems that many working in museums from the same period will be all too familiar with. The redevelopment provided the opportunity to address these issues and a whole lot more. The gallery also had no dedicated education area, a cramped cafe, no passenger lift and poor office spaces for staff.
One of the key problems with the Category A-listed building was that it had been added to over time. As a result, the visitor experience had become disjointed and included a number of dead ends. Hoskins Architects, which was appointed in 2009, has addressed this lack of coherence by reconnecting spaces and opening up new sightlines, with chunky doorways inserted at key points offering views across the gallery.
The building also contains the Cowdray Hall concert venue and Remembrance Hall, which had become disconnected from the rest of the gallery. Again, Hoskins has re-integrated these spaces. Cowdray Hall will play an important part in the multiple music events that make up the gallery’s varied programme.
Another crucial issue that Hoskins had to tackle was the venue’s lack of space and, within tricky parameters, how to extend it. It is a tight site and impossible to expand out or down. The solution was to add a structure on top of the building. Despite some objections, this was not created in the granite used for the original museum, and across much of Aberdeen’s architecture.
Instead, the decision was made to make a clean break with the historic fabric by installing a copper-clad rooftop structure. This striking sculptural element succeeds in making a statement without overwhelming the rest of the building.
It also offers great views across the city and provides large environmentally controlled galleries to hold temporary exhibitions. The city’s links to the petroleum industry are made plain by the sponsor of this space – BP. The gallery’s first temporary show is Think of Scotland, which features the work of the British photographer Martin Parr and runs until 23 February.
The building is anchored by a central court that is filled with light created by the glass roof in the new extension. This historic court has been returned to its original intention of displaying sculpture and features the only artwork to return to the same space as before the redevelopment – Tracey Emin’s neon-light artwork For You.
A staircase has been created that leads up from the central court to the galleries on the first floor and then to the extension. This route up through the building is important as studies showed that the majority of visitors did not venture from the ground floor prior to the overhaul.
The project also allowed the museum service to reinterpret and redisplay its collections. The collection is a strong one, featuring works by Scottish artists, designers and makers such as Henry Raeburn, Joan Eardley, Samuel Peploe, Rachel Maclean, Bill Gibb and James Cromar Watt, as well as national and international artists including Barbara Hepworth, Francis Bacon and Claude Monet.
As is the trend today, a fundamental aim was to display more items from the permanent collection and the gallery has very much succeeded in this objective, with 1,080 works on display compared with just 370 in 2015. The works are spread across 19 galleries, which is eight more than the old building offered.
Previously, the galleries focused on fine art, but the new displays feature a broader range of items, including textiles, jewellery, ceramics and glass. The curators have created connections between the different collections, which are shown using a mix of chronological and thematic arrangements. The themes, which were established with consultation with audiences including schools, play to the collection’s strengths.
The displays, created with the Edinburgh-based exhibition designer Studioarc, have been developed to appeal to a wide range of audiences. Works are hung lower than is usual, so you see them head-on, which works particularly well in the portrait gallery.
Access and inclusion were also high on the gallery’s priorities. As well as the lift to all floors, there are accessible toilets and a Changing Places facility, one of the few in Aberdeen. There are also large-print labels, hearing loops and hands-on displays.
In addition, a range of talks, tours and events, including British Sign Language tours and dementia-friendly events, have been developed to cater for diverse audiences.
Overall, the gallery feels like it will be a big hit and the aim of 250,000 visitors a year does not seem unrealistic. Hopefully, the residents of the city will be excited to get their feet through the doors again after such a long closure. But the gallery will need to make sure it keeps visitors interested by regularly refreshing displays and maintaining an ambitious programme of temporary exhibitions and events.
“A place for everyone” is the gallery’s tagline, but it will need to continue evolving to achieve that.
Simon Stephens is the editor of Museums Journal