Exhibiting and Interpreting

Presenting artworks in the Gallery

The Gallery has more than 50 gallery spaces which are used to display artworks from the collection and more than 20 exhibitions every year. Artworks are presented in several ways:

  • by place or culture (Australian art at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia and art from around the world at NGV International)
  • by when or where they were made (Chinese artworks in the Asian Galleries or recent art from all around the world in the Global Contemporary Art galleries)
  • by art form (Fashion and Textiles, Photography, and Prints and Drawings each have dedicated gallery spaces)
  • by artist (the exhibition John Brack in 2009)
  • by art style or movement (the exhibitions Australian Impressionism in 2007 or Art Deco 1910–1939 in 2008)
  • by idea or theme (the exhibition Timelines: Photography and Time in 2010)

Planning exhibitions

Curators research and plan exhibitions, working closely with other departments in the Gallery including conservation, registration and exhibition design to realise their ideas. Major exhibitions can take many years of planning.

An exhibition usually starts with a story or idea inspired by artworks ; curators then research and source artworks to help tell this story or explore this idea. Every artwork in turn has its own story and ideas and there can also be interesting connections between artworks.

Finding connections between artworks

Why are certain artworks grouped together, or placed next to each other in an exhibition? Curators are not only interested in creating visually appealing displays but in creating connections between artworks that help us to discover more, and which add to the story or ideas in the exhibition.

Some connections are obvious – artworks are placed together because they are made by the same artist or around the same time, are a similar style, or depict similar subjects or themes.

Some connections may surprise you.  For example, a contemporary artwork might be included among historical works to provide a different perspective.  International behaviour 2000 by Jan Nelson has been displayed alongside Coming South 1886 by Tom Roberts in the 19th century Australian art Gallery.  Each painting presents a very different view of a journey to Australia.   

Designing exhibitions

Exhibition designers, curators and other Gallery staff work to create spaces that enhance our experience of artworks and exhibitions. Exhibition designers consider:

  • what the exhibition is about
  • the type of artworks to be exhibited
  • the display requirements for artworks, such as lighting or display cases
  • how visitors will move around the space.

When creating an exhibition, designers can use temporary walls, display stands, furniture, colour, lighting, graphic design and decorative details.

In the exhibition Chinoiserie, artworks in the European Chinoiserie style, which took its inspiration from the arts of China, Japan and India, were displayed alongside Asian artworks. The design of the exhibition featured colour and pattern inspired by the Chinoiserie style.

The exhibition Tea and Zen explored the history of tea in China and Japan and its connections with Zen Buddhism. For this exhibition, designers created a more meditative display space that relates to important cultural traditions associated with tea.

Compare and contrast the exhibition designs. What is distinctive about each?

Finding out more about artworks

Our starting point for interpreting an artwork is what we see. The time and place an artwork was made, and who made it, also provides valuable clues. All artworks in the Gallery have a label containing these facts and it is often accompanied by an extended label with more detailed information.

Exhibition catalogues, audio guides, and education resources and programs also provide information that helps us interpret what we see. All these materials are informed by the research of art experts including curators and conservators.


Short film: Exhibition Design

Alex talks to John Eccles about transforming spaces into exhibitions

View Exhibition Design film (3.41 mins)

Short film: Curating

Alex talks to NGV curators about their role in the Gallery

View Curating film (3.36 mins)