On 3rd November 2017 the Royal Scottish Academy opened the biggest collections exhibition it has ever mounted in its near 200 year history. Ages of Wonder, a major partnership with the National Galleries of Scotland and in collaboration with the Universities of Dundee, Edinburgh and St Andrews, has been three years in the making. Over this time it has fully engaged our small collections team of three, our vital volunteers and more recently the entire exhibitions team at the RSA.
The RSA building on the Mound is the largest exhibiting space in Scotland and at the end of the day we managed to install around 600 objects from the collections. This ranged from the dense Victorian hang with works hung from floor to ceiling, a definite highlight for all, to the white cube 21st century space featuring work by just 7 artists. There are artworks from the enormous to the miniscule. William Allan’s Battle of Bannockburn measures nearly 2.5 by 5.5 metres while Phoebe Traquair’s pendant The Voyage, just 6.5 x 4.2cm.
Distilling down the RSA’s Recognised collection of near 7,000 items was certainly a challenge, but one that gave myself and co-curator RSA President Arthur Watson many days of enjoyment at our new collections store down at Granton in Edinburgh. Transporting all the works up to the Mound was another challenge; one that took seven days of trucks travelling back and forward, with some very tired drivers at the end of the process!
The resulting exhibition has been recognised by many as the best thing that they have ever seen shown at the RSA. A five star review by Duncan Macmillan also isn’t something that comes around too often. High praise indeed and something that makes the years of work all worthwhile. The exhibition tells the story of the RSA’s collections since they began in the late 1820s and the exhibition is hinged by the transfer of works the RSA made to the nation in 1910 that helped lay the foundations for the National Collection. This is the first time these works and the works transferred have been displayed together since that time.
The remainder of Ages of Wonder weaves a path through the RSA’s collections and how the RSA has operated in in the support of Scotland’s art and its artists. It is punctuated by something that we always wanted to introduce since we began planning the exhibition: live artistic practice. A live life school and live printmaking have been happening in the galleries since the exhibition opened and give a unique insight into artists’ practice, something that is usually hidden from audiences. These live events have really brought an vitality to the exhibition and are leading to new works entering the collections as they are made. This is something that is at the heart of our relationship with the artists we represent as an institution. Furthermore new commissions, such as Richard Murphy’s fantastic Wunderkammer cabinet present material in new ways and Calum Colvin’s evolving studio installation offers something new to the eye every week.
Ages of Wonder has really brought the RSA’s Recognised Collection into the light and we are indebted to the support of Museums Galleries Scotland and the Recognition Scheme for helping make it happen. From the live elements to the commissioning and the huge amount of conservation involved, to name but a few things.
The exhibition is open until 7th January and is accompanied by a book on the RSA and its collections and an extensive catalogue. There are still live events happening and so please come along and enjoy them and the rest of the exhibition for yourself over the festive period!