Above: Sculpture group at the entrance to Kelvingrove. Photograph by: luxpim, Creative Commons ("File:Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum statue.jpg" by luxpim is licensed under CC BY 2.0)
Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum greets visitors with a monumental façade: a larger-than-life sculpture group dominates the main entrance, overlooking a grass-lined crescent of pavement where groups of runners may be spotted jogging on clear mornings. The sculpture group, George Frampton’s St. Mungo as the Patron of Art and Music, depicts Glasgow’s patron saint seated in a commanding pose and flanked by representations of Art and Music. Austere and imposing, the bronze saint has an unforgettable effect on viewers. When I visited Kelvingrove for the first time in October 2020, the sight made me think, inexplicably, of America’s Lincoln Memorial. There he was at the top of the steps, St. Mungo, enthroned in scholarly grandeur.
With its monumental scale, architectural symmetry, and decorative programme designed by distinguished Victorian sculptors, Kelvingrove looks intimidating beyond belief. The ceilings are high and vaulted, the floors polished to pristine perfection, the halls enormous. There’s a massive pipe organ in the Centre Hall. Incredibly, it lights up. Alternating green and purple lights sweep over the organ at intervals, adding playful touches of colour to an otherwise magnificent but sombre space.
Entry is free. Like other recently reopened museums and galleries, however, Kelvingrove asks visitors to book time slots in order to maintain COVID-19 restrictions on capacity. Free tickets can be booked in advance on the museum’s website. A one-way system is enforced by museum staff to ensure safe distancing, and takes visitors on an exciting (if slightly disorienting) journey through Kelvingrove’s enormous floor plan.
Looking at Art, the first stop on my one-way route, seemingly compensates for the building’s overwhelming architecture by engaging visitors as much as possible. Upon entering the gallery, one comes face to face with a free-standing display wall which shows Norah Nilson Gray’s Girl with a Burmese Umbrella (c. 1925) partway through restoration. On either side of the framed picture, descriptive text explains in simple, informal language why and how the museum engaged in conservation work: ‘We were sure the colours would be lovely when it was cleaned.’ About a third of the painting is shown in its earlier discoloured state, as if an Instagram filter got stuck mid-swipe. Behind this first display, a large plywood piece by Edinburgh artist Anne Redpath (1895–1965) is encased in glass. The placard below the exhibit — so near the ground I had to crouch down to read it, perhaps at a child’s eye level? — prepares visitors for a surprise when they walk round to the other side. Short on materials, Redpath reused the plywood for a second painting.
‘Which side do you prefer?’ the placard asks. In this gallery, exhibition labels repeatedly address the reader. The tone and diction of these questions suggest they’re suitable for children, and although the ground floor’s Mini Museum (for under-5-year-olds) is unfortunately closed at this time, Kelvingrove’s youngest visitors seem to be very welcome here. Against a cheerful yellow backdrop, a display exploring various artists’ use of colour asks, ‘How do these colours make you feel?’ Looking at Art reaches out to viewers persistently, directly — it wants to know how we feel, what we like or dislike about the exhibits, how we respond to them, what we see. One vertical accompanying board declares its subject: The Art of Looking.
Looking at Art begins by offering visitors a glimpse into the conservation work that goes on behind the scenes. But it doesn’t stop there. Insights into the artistic process abound. John Quinton Pringle (1864–1925), an optician by trade, gets a placard comparing his pointillist technique to a colour blindness test chart. A few lines of descriptive text draw viewers’ attention to traces of creative thought in each Pringle painting: ‘You can see that he changed his mind and repainted several parts of the picture’ (Two Figures on a Beach); ‘You can imagine Pringle in the act of adding on dabs of paint to build up a lively colourful surface’ (Still Life on a Table). A drawer beneath one display case opens to reveal Pringle’s delightful miniature portraits.
The gallery is organised thematically, not by period or artist. Rubens and Redpath are neighbours. Jusepe de Ribera’s St. Peter Repentant (1628) hangs near Frank Auerbach’s Mornington Crescent (1989). Johann Zoffany’s A Family Party: The Minuet (1780) and Joan Eardley’s Glasgow Kids, a Saturday Matinee Picture Queue (1949) both reside in a section focusing on group events. It’s a new and pleasant experience to be invited, not instructed, to engage in the act of interpretation. This exhibition strives to present art alongside conversational prompts, not didactic teaching tools, and for me it succeeded.
Following one-way directions, I went straight from the bright storybook hues of Looking at Art to the atmospheric dim lighting of Burrell at Kelvingrove: Collecting Chinese Treasures. This temporary exhibition, featuring objects from the vast (and currently closed) Burrell Collection, has a very different feel. Informative labels, tasteful gold text, and a rich warm red-and-black colour scheme infuse this gallery with a more traditional public museum’s air of serious scholarship. A book explaining the meanings of jade rests in an elevated glass case near the entrance, with English translated text printed on the wall beside it; one senses the sanctity of these ancient, precious objects.
The shift in tone is disconcerting, but there’s no time to get used to it. Essential safe distancing regulations guide 2020 visitors through an eclectic sequence of disciplines and display strategies. The next stop tells the story of industrial Glasgow’s artistic development. Frances and Margaret Macdonald, leaders of the nineteenth-century Glasgow Style, are honoured with a pillar-mounted placard towering like an obelisk before examples of Glaswegian design. Furniture, metalwork, textiles, pottery produced for Southeast Asian markets, and histories of decorative crafts culminate in a long display case of Scottish glassware, each translucent object gleaming on its softly lit shelf. There’s a stunning piece made to resemble a just-inflated balloon, and planet-themed glassblown globes by Colin Terris reflect the impact of 1960s space exploration.
A bust of Queen Victoria has pride of place in the Expression Court, a space devoted to facial expressions from all over the world. There are no rope barriers, giving visitors the gratifying freedom to whisper a few choice words of cheeky post-colonial critique directly into the unamused face of the Empress herself. The same intimate, accessible display strategy applies to most of the other marble busts. Operating on trust, Kelvingrove lets you get close enough to gaze into John Locke’s eyes or study a harpy’s contorted scowl. Chinese masks and animal specimens, on the other hand, are protected by glass display cases. Sophie Cave’s Floating Heads installation — over 50 disembodied heads hanging from the high ceiling, stark white and tinted by shifting colours of light — rounds out the spectrum of human and non-human emotion. This open area has an immersive theatrical quality, which foregrounds visitors’ movement through space in a rotating dance around the scattered, free-standing figures. It’s tempting to mirror the exaggerated or frozen expressions before us, and the small children who were there with me that day certainly made faces.
When Kelvingrove reopened in 2006 after a three-year refurbishment period, its dramatic redesign sparked passionate public reactions. Under the leadership of Dr. Mark O’Neill, then the head of Glasgow Museums, Kelvingrove moved away from the Victorian municipal museum movement’s chronological, taxonomic displays to focus instead on visitor-centred storytelling. Themes like ‘Conflict and Consequence’, ‘Life’, and ‘Expression’ were criticised as meaninglessly incoherent neo-liberal propaganda, with one writer calling for ‘Mark O’Neill’s head on a spike — symbolically speaking, of course’. Nonetheless, soaring visitor numbers (3.2 million in the first year after reopening) indicate that contemporary Kelvingrove is no less beloved than when it originally opened in 1901.
Kelvingrove’s strategic refusal to dictate ordered narratives didn’t take away from my experience. Visitors, after all, are capable of thinking for themselves. But there is one display choice which seems left over from the days of empire — the decision to include indigenous peoples’ cultural artefacts in a natural history exhibition. An eagle-headed Coast Salish totem pole, the work of First Nations artist Doug LaFortune, stands amidst taxidermy bird specimens. Carved from red cedar, the totem pole towers above its surroundings. When you enter via the designated pathway, however, it’s partially blocked by a display case so that you literally see it for the first time through a natural history filter.
There are other examples of this exhibition strategy — a parka sharing a case with an Arctic fox, a ‘Magical Andes’ sign describing Andean peoples’ beliefs. Cultural theorists like Mieke Bal have long critiqued spatial arrangements which locate peoples in or near natural history exhibits, implicitly dehumanising certain groups by associating them with animality. Surely there are more appropriate places for these objects within Kelvingrove’s 22 galleries.
I ended my visit by exploring a bit of the first floor, having climbed the grand staircase which provides a spectacular view of the ground-floor court from above. ‘Conflict and Consequence’ welcomes visitors with an equally spectacular sight. Suits of armour flank the gallery’s entrance, where the viewer immediately comes face to face with a group of mounted knights and bladed weapons poised threateningly overhead. The knights’ armour, which includes sixteenth-century pieces made for the first Earl of Pembroke, illustrates the first story this exhibition wants to tell — namely, a warrior’s place in society.
Subsequent stories leave this martial magnificence behind. We move from the splendour of an imperial Chinese ceremonial uniform, positioned opposite the Earl of Pembroke’s armour, to the traumas of World War II Scotland (where I didn’t have time to linger). Travelling from Scotland to Benin directly after that can startle the viewer, but I’m not complaining; there was so many fresh and fascinating experiences to take in on this whirlwind tour of the world. Contemporary West African exhibits include the work of Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou, a Porto-Novo-based photographer whose name I eagerly wrote down for future reference. Nearby displays, and their accompanying placards, present the dynamic and sophisticated artistic traditions of civilisations which engaged in commerce long before European colonisation. Here’s a familiar face, Mansa M?s? of the Mali Empire, with his famous gold wealth depicted in a reproduction of the Catalan Atlas. A wall of text beside him is titled ‘Africa: The Bright Continent’.
The last object I managed to see was a replica Ghost Dance shirt, created by Marcella LeBeau when the original shirt was repatriated to the Lakota people. Descriptive text explains the historical context in which the shirt was stripped from a Lakota warrior’s body at Wounded Knee, and the process of Glasgow Museums finally returning it to LeBeau’s community. Pausing at the gallery’s exit, I turned back for one last glance. From my vantage point near the Ghost Dance display case, I could see two parallel exhibits — ‘Bronzes from Benin’ (which doesn’t seem to include the looted Benin Bronzes), and tools and animal specimens from the remote Scottish island of St. Kilda. Both collections were presented in intentionally similar ways, with ramp-shaped backdrops featuring printed photographs of their originating landscapes. I think I saw an island goat. I definitely saw a bird. That parallel exemplifies my key takeaway from this lightning-speed trip to one of Glasgow’s favourite museums — a conscious effort to de-centre and denaturalise British and European experiences. St. Kilda and Benin resonate with one another across the artificial, abstract space of a museum gallery, and that contextual resonance confers cultural legitimacy upon all parts of a multifaceted world. I’ll certainly be going back to explore the rest of Kelvingrove, and to take a good long look at all the objects I merely glimpsed.
But first, I need to finish seeing The Hunterian.
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Wei Ai Ng is currently a Masters student in Museum Studies at the University of Glasgow. She earned her BA in History and English from the University of Oxford, where she regularly volunteered at the Ashmolean Museum. Wei Ai has written research reports for the United Kingdom’s National Trust and the Netherlands-based Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation. She aims to specialise in museum education, with a focus on early childhood development.