After the longest closure in its 196-year history, the National Gallery in London will reopen to visitors on 8 July with three one-way art routes of about 25 to 35 minutes through the collections and a promise that people will be allowed to linger.
The gallery will be the first big museum to open in England after the government announced it was easing the lockdown from 4 July.
Its director, Gabriele Finaldi, said it felt like the gallery was coming “out of exile” after 111 days of closure. During the second world war it was shut for only two days.
“All of us at the National Gallery felt a responsibility of reopening as soon as we could. The tradition here is one of resilience, staying open through the war years and so on, so we felt the weight of that responsibility and we wanted to be there for the visiting public as soon as we possibly could.”
It will reopen seven days a week with all visitors having to book time slots online. Once at the gallery they can walk through the collection on one of three routes.
Route A will take visitors from the Wilton Diptych medieval panel painting via Michelangelo to Raphael; route B from Rubens via Caravaggio to Van Gogh; and route C from Bronzino via Hogarth to Van Gogh.
Finaldi said the routes had been given approximate timings of 25 to 35 minutes but they will not be compulsory. “People will of course be allowed to linger … we want people to feel they can visit the gallery freely.” If a room gets busy staff may ask people to move on.
Visitors will be encouraged to wear face coverings and the distancing will be 2 metres. There will also be high-efficiency filters in the air conditioning, perspex panels at visitor desks, enhanced cleaning and hand sanitisers. Toilets will be one in, one out.
Finaldi said it was “hugely exciting” to be reopening and symbolic to be first.
“We want to be a part of the nation’s recovery story and by opening the doors and letting the public back in to see our inspiring pictures, we want to make an important contribution to the process,” he said. “We are the same gallery you know and love, just with added social distancing and one-way art routes.”
How keen people would be to return to galleries remained an unknown, Finaldi said. He pointed to the example of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, where it took five years after 9/11 for numbers to return to normal.
About 65% of the National Gallery’s visitors are normally tourists and they, of course, will be largely absent.
Visitors were going to see some changes in the gallery, Finaldi said, including the reopening of its largest room, which houses Italian Baroque paintings, after a two-year restoration.
Van Dyck’s monumental Equestrian Portrait of Charles I will be back on show in Room 21 after more than two years, following conservation work.
The gallery’s Titian: Love, Desire, Death exhibition, which closed after only three days, will also reopen and has been extended until 17 January 2021.
Finaldi said being able to afford the reopening was a concern for all museums and galleries with the National Gallery required to raise around 50% of its own money. “We are in discussions with government about how our financial position can be supported, not just now but for the longer term,” he said.
Tate announced it would reopen its four galleries: Tate Modern, Tate Britain, Tate St Ives and Tate Liverpool, on 27 July.
Maria Balshaw, the Tate’s director, said: “Art and culture play vital roles in our lives, and many of us have been craving that irreplaceable feeling of being face-to-face with a great work of art.
“Our top priority remains that everyone stays safe and well, so we will continue to monitor the situation in the weeks ahead, work closely with government and colleagues, and make all the changes necessary for a safe reopening.”
The Royal Academy of Arts will open for “friends” on 9 July and the public on 16 July with its Picasso and Paper exhibition extended until 2 August. Face coverings will be compulsory.
Axel Rüger, the RA’s chief executive, said that with a greatly reduced visitor capacity “it will be an opportunity for a quieter, more contemplative experience in the galleries”.
The Barbican art gallery will reopen on 13 July, the Whitechapel gallery on 14 July, Turner Contemporary in Margate on 22 July, Nottingham Contemporary on 4 August and the Baltic in Gateshead on 13 August.