Opened in March 1901, the Whitechapel Gallery is historically the first purpose-built gallery in the United Kingdom. Housed in a striking Arts and Crafts building designed by Charles Harrison Townsend, the gallery was founded by Canon Barnett and his wife Henrietta Barnett. Charles Aitken was its first Director from 1901, until his departure to the Tate Gallery in 1911. Throughout its history the Whitechapel Gallery has hosted several seminal exhibitions which have left a lasting legacy in the field of exhibitions histories and art history, such as:
This is Tomorrow (1956) (WAG/EXH/2/45) was one of the most iconic post-War exhibitions. It was devoted to the possibilities of cross-disciplinary collaboration between artists, architects, designers and theorists and laid the foundations for the emergence of Pop Art in Britain; Helio Oiticica’s Eden or the ‘Whitechapel Experiment’ (1969) (WAG/EXH/2/122), was Oiticica’s first exhibit in the UK and one of the most radical and audacious in the history of the Whitechapel Gallery. The exhibition taking took the form of an immersive theatrical mise-en-scene in which the audience became active participants; Live in Your Head: Concept and Experiment in Britain 1965-1975 (2000) (WAG/EXH/2/484/1) documented a crucial period of change in British art, during which the supremacy of painting and sculpture was challenged by the emergence of conceptual modes of art practice and media-based fine art.
In April 2009 the Whitechapel Gallery undertook an expansion project that integrated the existing building with the adjoining Passmore-Edwards, formerly the Whitechapel Free Public Lending Library. This development vastly improved the gallery’s archive facilities into three different integrated spaces which include: a state of the art repository which houses the Archive, the Foyle Reading Room which acts as the public inter-face for the consultation of materials, and a dedicated gallery space, the Pat Mathews Gallery. Through animating archival documents into public displays, the gallery space performs a critical investigation into the organisational structures that make the past visible in the present, as well as enabling a constant reappraisal of the Archives’ wider role in contemporary culture.
Collected over the course of a century, the materials housed by the Whitechapel Gallery Archive present a unique insight into changing approaches to art and exhibition making. Included in the collection are publications, rare documents, artists’ letters, photographs, graphic works, press records, exhibition plans and installation documentation, recordings on tape and video of artists, critics and curators. You can find out more about the Archive Holdings here and how to use the Archive and Foyle Reading Room here.
The Whitechapel Gallery Archive strengthens the Whitechapel Gallery’s overall commitment to academic research and educational facilities. It compliments its role in the development and preservation of the history of contemporary art, with acting as a living memory of the history of the institution.
Please arrange your visit in advance. Please read the archive’s safety measures.
T +44(0)20 7522 7862
To book a visit or if you have an enquiry, please download, complete and email the Archive Enquiry Form.