Sir John Leighton, director general, said a long-standing “guddle” which deters many potential visitors will be transformed by a new main entrance to the 19th-century Scottish National Gallery complex and an extension to the precinct on The Mound.
He said changes to the “choked and clogged” area, which it is hoped will get under way in 2017, would help open up access to the gardens – which he described as “one of the best spaces in the whole of Europe” – the following year.
He said views from Waverley Bridge and Princes Street Gardens would also be transformed by the new facade of the gallery and a set of tiered steps into the “prime” entrance leading into new gallery spaces.
The £20 million project is aimed at tripling the amount of displays devoted to Scottish art treasures. They are currently seen by around 19 per cent of the 1.3 million annual visitors to the 19th-century buildings on the site.
A major overhaul of the Scottish National Gallery has long been a priority for Sir John, who was appointed a decade ago, the year after an underground complex linking the two historic gallery buildings was completed.
He said: “The plans are still developing, but they really are a significant improvement, not just for the internal layout of the gallery, but also the relationship of the gallery to its immediate setting in Princes Street Gardens and how people access it.
“Quite frankly, the area where Princes Street meets the Mound precinct, and goes down into the galleries is a complete mess. It is an absolute guddle. There is a whole mix of accumulated interventions from over the last century. It is a complete mess. This development will create a much clearer relationship between Princes Street, the precinct, the gardens and the galleries. One of the aims is to establish the gardens as the prime entrance into the galleries - we want a lot more visitors to go to the Scottish collection in future.
“At the moment it is confusing, it is poorly signed, it is poorly stepped and disabled access is difficult. Views from Waverley Bridge, Princes Street and the gardens will look very different. We think people will be very impressed.”
Michael Clarke, director of the Scottish National Gallery, added: “The underlying principles of the project will be simplicity and clarity. You cannot actually get into the Scottish collection via the gardens entrance at the moment, you have to do it internally. When you come in the gardens entrance in future there will be a lovely grand staircase leading up to the Scottish collection.”