The exhibitions you must see this January

Published 19 December 2019

From groundbreaking early photography to the best of contemporary portraits, celebrate the new year with our pick of January's must-see exhibitions.

January is the perfect time to catch up on some stellar shows that opened in the last few weeks of 2019 (in case you were a little distracted by mince pies).

Photography fans, in particular, take note – Canadian artist Meryl McMaster's arresting self-portraits at Ikon in Birmingham explore the relationship between identity and the land, and in Edinburgh a newly acquired major collection captures Scottish life from the 1840s.

All human life is here – the National Portrait Gallery's Photographic Portrait Prize presents a fascinating array of subjects, and the Lightbox celebrates inspiring women with an exhibition of portraits by Anne Katrin-Purkiss.

If you're feeling other-worldly, two exhibitions offer different kinds of escape. The Design Museum looks at the real possibility of moving to Mars, and Buddhism is explored in an immersive exhibition at the British Library – catch both before they close in February.

Don't forget, most of our must-see exhibitions are free or 50% off with a National Art Pass. You can also check out our guide to the must-see exhibitions in 2020, and our full exhibition listings for more inspiration.

Prince Siddhartha’s birth depicted in a woodblock printed folding book in four volumes containing scenes from the Life of Buddha, China, 1808


Revealing the story of Buddhism through stunning historical artefacts, including illuminated books, silk scrolls and sacred texts written on tree bark through to contemporary art and ritual objects, this exhibition immerses visitors in the religion's history and principles. A natural soundscape and settings inspired by a temple and monastic library create the perfect atmosphere for mindfulness.

Anne-Katrin Purkiss, Mary Quant, fashion designer, 1987 © A.K.Purkiss

Great Minds by Anne-Katrin Purkiss

For this ongoing photographic project, Anne Katrin-Purkiss deliberately addresses the gender imbalance by focusing on women whose work has had an impact, regardless of their fame. The result is a fascinating exhbition of over 40 contemporary portraits of women both in and out of the public eye, including fashion designer Mary Quant, sculptor Ellisabeth Frink and first British cosmonaut Helen Sharman.

Mars © NASA

Moving to Mars

Astonishingly, the idea of flying to Mars has evolved from science fiction into serious scientific endeavour within our lifetimes. From the design challenges of getting there to the reality of housing, food and even makeup on a different planet, this exhibition offers a sneak preview of what might be in store. The immersive experience even gives visitors a sense of a Martian landscape and asks how all this innovative design could help our own environment on Earth.


Scotland’s Photograph Album: The MacKinnon Collection

  • 15 November 2019 – 16 February 2020
  • Free to all

This is the first opportunity to see a major photography collection amassed by the collector Murray MacKinnon. As well as offering unique insights into Scottish life from the 1840s to the 1940s when the country was going through immense social and industrial change, the images showcase the early history of photography itself. Many of the form's first practitioners were based in Scotland, and the exhibition includes work by Julia Margaret Cameron, David Octavius Hill and Thomas Annan.

Pat Martin, Gail and Beaux; Mom (our last one) from the series Goldie (Mother), 2018 © Pat Martin

Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2019

Open competitions always throw up exciting new work by talented amateurs and seasoned professionals alike. The National Portrait Gallery's Photographic Portrait Prize, established in 2003, whittles down thousands of entries from across the world to just under 60, showcasing portraits from the formal to the spontaneous, traditional and contemporary techniques and a fascinating cast of characters with compelling stories to tell.


Africa State of Mind

Curated by editor Ekow Eshun with Nottingham's New Art Exchange, this exhibition of work by photographers from across Africa offers a subjective and varied take on 'Africanness'. By examining the dynamism and contradictions of the continent's cities, the fluidity of identity and the legacy of history, the artists explore Africa as a psychological as well as a physical space.


Meryl McMaster: As Immense as the Sky

  • 4 December 2019 – 23 February 2020
  • Free to all

Canadian artist Meryl McMaster's performative and elaborately costumed self-portraits draw on her dual First Nation and European heritage. Exploring the tensions within her own identity, she retells ancestral stories through images captured in dramatic landscapes and ancient sites across several Canadian provinces. The exhibition also explores the environmental cost of colonisation, particularly the near extinction of key species.

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