National Portrait Gallery

"We have been using FileMaker for over 20 years now and because it is highly-configurable it can be used to solve a whole series of different problems. FileMaker's flexibility is a big plus and it has driven a high number of efficiencies." David Saywell, Head of Digital Programmes, National Portrait Gallery, London

National Portrait Gallery puts FileMaker in the frame

World famous gallery estimates savings of £5,000 a month with FileMaker


  • Gallery was in need of an all-encompassing solution to a range of administrative challenges


  • Arts: the most extensive collection of portraits in the world


  • One particular use of FileMaker sees visitors voting for their favourite artist


  • Cost savings in the region of £5,000 per month, as well as other associated benefits

Owning over 300,000 works, the National Portrait Gallery holds the most extensive collection of portraits in the world. The collection is displayed at the main gallery on St Martin’s Place in London, as well as in a number of locations around the United Kingdom, including several houses managed by the National Trust. Founded in 1856, the stated aim of the Gallery is ‘to promote through the medium of portraits the appreciation and understanding of the men and women who have made and are making British history and culture, and ... to promote the appreciation and understanding of portraiture in all media.’ Today, it continues to seek to do this by making its work and activities of interest to as wide a range of visitors as possible.

Zaha Hadid by Michael Craig Martin, 2008
Zaha Hadid by Michael Craig Martin, 2008

The challenge:

There is a lot of history in the National Portrait Gallery both from the perspective of the historical icons whose portraits are on display and from the point of view of the artists who feature in the collection.

But despite this strong connection with the past, the Gallery is also committed to using technology to enable people to interact better with its collection. At the heart of this drive is FileMaker, a database that the gallery has been using for over 20 years in numerous applications.

“It is used as a valuable tool within many departments throughout the gallery – Curators, Trading, Communications & Development, Exhibitions & Collections Management and Administration” says David Saywell, the gallery's head of digital programmes.

According to David, FileMaker is extremely straightforward to configure meaning he and other members of his team can build simple applications and save on costly consultants.

“Staff describe the tool they want and we make it happen for them. I like to refer to FileMaker as Meccano-type software because it can be used to solve a whole series of different problems,” he adds.

It is used as a valuable tool within many departments throughout the gallery - Curators, Trading, Communications & Development, Exhibitions & Collections Management and Administration

—David Saywell, Head of Digital Programmes, National Portrait Gallery
Visitors to the exhibition are asked to vote on their favourite work.
Visitors to the exhibition are asked to vote on their favourite work.

The FileMaker solution:

One project with FileMaker at the centre was the development of technology to improve the way visitors voted for their favourite portrait during the prestigious annual BP Portrait Award exhibition.

Each year the competition attracts some of the world’s foremost contemporary portrait artists, from which a shortlist is drawn up and the works exhibited at the gallery. Visitors to the exhibition are asked to vote on their favourite work.

“Before we asked people to vote using a pencil and card – an approach that was expensive due to printing costs and the time it took to input all the replies and collate the statistics. To be honest, it was a pre-industrial solution,” says David.

The Marketing team were determined to modernise the process, and so David introduced a touch-screen voting kiosk, positioned at the exhibition entrance and exit. Using FileMaker, the application offers visitors a selection of digitised thumbnail images of the shortlisted works. People are invited to touch their favourite image before registering their vote and details.

“It's now the second year we have had the kiosk in operation and it has been very successful in terms of reducing costs and increasing the level of visitor engagement,” adds David.

“With the old card-based system we used to get around 15,000 entrants but this year 28,500 people voted via the kiosk. That's almost double the number of votes in two years and an indication that people have really engaged with the technology.”

Cutting costs face-on

FileMaker has also been at the heart of a number of other applications, which have brought cost savings and efficiencies to the way the gallery interacts with the public and members of the press.

Another popular initiative run by the gallery is the annual Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, where photographers, ranging from gifted amateurs and talented young students to established professionals, send in their portraits. The gallery receives thousands of entries each year but can only show around 60 works in the exhibition.

David says: “Whereas before we would have to write an individual email to all those who had been unsuccessful thanking them for their participation, now, FileMaker automatically generates an email, personalised with the entrants details. It saves a great deal of time and means we can be responsive to entrants.”

Using the Mail-it plug-in for FileMaker, all press releases and invites generated by the gallery are now also sent out in email form rather than on paper or card as before. David says emailing en masse is easier using the FileMaker application compared with Outlook, because there are fewer restrictions on the amount of emails that can be sent in one go.

“Not only do journalists want to receive information this way, so they can pick it up on their phones, it also brings us huge savings because there are no print costs. We save around £5,000 a month. For an organisation of our size that's substantial,” he adds.

FileMaker is used as a supplement for aspects of the collections’ work. For example, all the biographies and related details about each individual sitter and artist in the collection are stored and cross-referenced within FileMaker. Another application enables a quick search of notable dates, such as anniversaries of births and deaths of famous artists and sitters.

“It's a great tool that hides all the complexity under one click of a button. Many of our displays are tied into anniversaries, such as the forthcoming exhibition to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens' birth,” says David.

“Being able to search quickly for data like this gives curators ideas and enables them to stay one step ahead. It also gives people another reason to return to the gallery, or to visit for the first time.”

Notable benefits:

  • The Meccano factor – FileMaker's flexibility means it can be used in a range of applications throughout the gallery
  • Cost savings – Because FileMaker is easy to configure, the gallery has little need to employ expensive IT consultants. Applications based on FileMaker have also drastically reduced printing costs
  • Increased interaction – Innovations such as the touch screen kiosk and cross-referencing of sitters and artists on the website have engaged visitors and allowed them to interact with the collection

Zaha Hadid by Michael Craig Martin, 2008 - Commissioned with support from JPMorgan through the Fund for New Commissions © National Portrait Gallery, London. William Shakespeare attributed to John Taylor oil on canvas, feigned oval, circa 1610. Credit line: © National Portrait Gallery, London.


National Portrait Gallery

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