The Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery

The Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery (Glasgow, UK) opened in 1901, to coincide with the Glasgow International Exhibition held that year. The exhibition aimed to display the nation’s progress in science and industry to a global audience, but also to entertain and educate a more local populace. Similarly, the museum was founded in line with the principles of museum construction and display at the turn of the century: access and education. As Amy Woodson-Boulton notes, late nineteenth century civic reformers “created a vision of art and meaningful labor as experiences necessary for counteracting the debilitating and dehumanizing effects of industrial capitalism in general, and the ugliness of modern cities in particular.” The Kelvingrove followed the founding of similar institutions in the other industrial capitals of Britain: Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, etc. These museums sought to transform industrial workers into model citizens through the civilizing influence of art, history, and science.

Central to this goal was the dream of a “universal” museum: a single institution that could offer a comprehensive survey of human knowledge. Philip Fisher notes, “As collections become larger they become more intelligible…The ideal museum would be at last the complete history in which the path would go from horizon to horizon, each [object] answering the questions asked by its neighbors”. This principle led to museums housing items that in the current day we are used to seeing in very different institutions: natural history alongside fine art or industrial design alongside antiquities, for instance.

Since their founding, many 19th and early 20th-century museums have limited the scope of their collections (like the British Museum in London, which moved its fine art to the National Gallery in the 1830s, its natural history collection to South Kensington in the 1880s, and its library to the British Library in 1973). The Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery, in contrast, continues to embody the spirit of universality, a spirit that is evident from the moment you walk through the museum’s doors.

The grand Central Hall is dominated by a massive (2889 pipes!) Lewis & Co. organ, installed in 1902. During normal operations (suspended amid the Covid-19 crisis), free recitals by local and visiting organists are given daily, Monday to Saturday at 1pm and Sunday at 3pm. The open Hall allows visitors to stroll in and out of these recitals, though chairs are available if you wish to sit and listen more attentively. From the Central Hall, the Kelvingrove is divided into two halves: Life and Expression. To your left (entering from Argyll Street) is Life: natural history, human history, and prehistory. To your right is Expression: the fine arts.

Floating Heads by Sophie Cave
PHOTOGRAPH BY Jordan Kistler

The East Court (Expression) is dominated by the striking “Floating Heads” instillation by Sophie Cave, which fully evoke “expression” in their contorted, whimsical faces. The east wing houses a significant collection of Glaswegian art (including works by the “Glasgow Boys” and a range of arts and crafts productions in the Glasgow Style) as well as an excellent collection of Impressionist art (including Van Gogh, Monet, and Cezanne), some gems in the Pre-Raphaelite style, and a wide selection of Scottish painting. The most famous painting on display is Salvador Dalí’s ‘Christ of St John of the Cross’, which is given its own gallery.

Despite the binary divide suggested by the division of “Life” from “Expression”, The Kelvingrove is full of exciting and surprising juxtapositions that remind the visitor of the dream of universal knowledge, unencumbered by disciplinary divides. This is evident in the West Court, where the imposing figure of visitor-favourite Sir Roger the Asian Elephant is nearly dwarfed by the restored Spitfire fighter plane which soars over his head.

Sir Roger the Asian Elephant and Spitfire, West Court
PHOTOGRAPH BY Jordan Kistler

Some of my favourite displays at the museum are the product of these intriguing combinations. On the first floor of the west wing (Life) in the “Conflict and Consequence” gallery is the “Animal Armoury”, which examines armour, both natural and man made. So, a set of medieval knights’ helmets are displayed with a taxidermized chicken: both have prominent crests along the ridge of the skull. Swords and rifles are suspended in the air along with a narwhal’s tusk and a swordfish’s bill, while suits of armour sit next to a lobster and an armadillo. As Toby Capwell, the Arms and Armour Curator, notes, this gallery is not just about “wars and killing, but it’s also about art, history, science, social history, and economics”.

The Animal Armory
PHOTOGRAPH BY Jordan Kistler

A similar story emerges downstairs in the “Creatures of the Past” gallery. Alongside the expected dinosaurs (in fact, there’s only one dinosaur – a cast of a Ceratosaur) and other prehistoric remains are displays devoted to animals not yet extinct. One striking display case considers the tiger: “one tiger dies every day because of poaching or the destruction of the forests where they live,” the label tells us. A tiger’s skull sits next to the products of traditional medicine which drive the illegal trade in these animals – plasters, tonics, and medicines made of tiger’s bones. Nearby, the front half of a taxidermized tiger, given to the Kelvingrove by Lady Birkmyre in 1946, morphs into a poignant sculpture by Peter Donohoe, which “symbolizes the loss of tigers in the wild”. The juxtaposition of metal and fur reminds the viewer of humanity’s central role in the destruction of this species—but also holds out the hope that art can join with science to promote conservation efforts.

Tiger Sculpture by Peter Donohoe, 2006
PHOTOGRAPH BY Jordan Kistler

These juxtapositions teach us far more than a single object or a single discipline possibly could. They open up new ways of seeing and new ways of thinking, offering fresh perspectives on the world’s problems—and perhaps fresh solutions for the future.

A visit to the Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery makes for a wonderful family day out. The Ancient Egypt gallery is always popular with children, as is the immersive Object Cinema, which combines audio and visuals to bring a rainforest to life. Entry to the museum is free (during the Covid-19 crisis, entry is by pre-booked tickets only). There is a pay and display car park, but the museum is also easily reached by public transportation. It is a five-minute walk to the Kelvinhall subway station, and there is a bus stop directly outside the museum on Argyll Street. There is a café on the ground floor and a table service restaurant in the basement (both closed during the pandemic). The museum’s twenty-two galleries, containing 8,000 objects, are more than enough to fill an afternoon.

[1] Amy Woodson-Boulton. Transformative Beauty: Art Museums in Industrial Britain (Stanford University Press, 2012), p. 3.

[2] Philip Fisher, Making and Effacing Art: Modern American Art in a Culture of Museums (Oxford: OUP, 1991), p. 23.

[3] “Gallery creatures: Keeping the collections at Kelvingrove in pristine condition involves an eclectic band of specialists, but they all share a passion for the job”, The Herald Scotland, 17th June 2006. 

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Jordan Kistler

Jordan Kistler is a lecturer in Victorian Literature at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. She researches the intersections between science and literature in the nineteenth century, and has published on blindness, mesmerism, museum displays, and more.