Located on the windswept banks of the Clyde, Glasgow’s Riverside Museum can be easily reached by public transport to Partick. Originally the Glasgow Museum of Transport, Riverside Museum was redesigned by Dame Zaha Hadid (1950–2016) and now boasts a state-of-the-art building which opened in 2011. A separate attraction, the Tall Ship Glenlee, is afloat on the water beside the museum and adds to its iconic profile.
Once you step inside, the evocative gloom of Scottish grey skies and grey water gives way to the museum’s bright, cheerful interior. Restored and repainted locomotives catch the eye with their glossy toybox charm, although COVID restrictions unfortunately prevent visitors from entering them. Mounted on a platform are great steam engines, satisfyingly heavy and old-fashioned in appearance, so that you can almost hear a ghostly echo of choo-choo-chugga-chugga.
A tram exhibition tells the story of carrying Glasgow’s young people to their nightly dancing, developed by interpretation specialist Lucy Harland. 1950s party dresses are mounted in display cases outside the tram, with object labels quoting oral history interviews. The tram itself was closed due to COVID, but Lucy’s presentation to a class of University of Glasgow MSc Museum Studies postgraduates explained how the interpretation team used stories to make transport more interesting. Reportedly, the exhibition includes period dance music and reenactments by actors, so that young visitors needn’t endure watching interviewees their grandparents’ age talk about kissing.
Other exhibits include historic motorcars and carriages, including an explanation of how exactly governesses would get in with their charges. A caravan with patterned carpets and curtains vividly evokes decorative tastes of the past, when the Carter family lived in it for many years. As you go around the ground-floor areas towards the exit near Tall Ship, there are boats and ship models with footage of being launched by Queen Elizabeth, several buses, and a slightly out-of-place display of Star Wars figures. One bus has an object label explaining how municipal authorities introduced separate entrance and exit doors, aiming to increase the efficiency of passenger flow. Glaswegians apparently rejected this and continued exiting by the same door where they got on, perhaps out of respect for a time-honoured British tradition of thanking the bus driver.
By far my favourite area was a recreation of an old cobbled street, lined with shops and an appropriately dim pub. Audiovisual elements are highly effective at populating these scenes from the past. Not only does the pub include sounds of customer voices, it also encourages visitors to imagine men’s strong body odour after a long day of work! Next to the pub is a subway entrance, which offers the unforgettable experience of boarding the world’s third-oldest underground. The old subway’s wooden panelling and painted decoration are jaw-droppingly gorgeous.
Returning to the main street, you can get up close to a horse-drawn carriage and peer into historic shops. There is also a carousel nearby, and if you can find your way to a staircase, the first floor has equally charming exhibits—on the day I visited, small children rolled around on a map of sea routes there, and did their very best to touch models that weren’t supposed to be touched. The museum is extremely child-friendly, and has a variety of offerings to delight all ages.
Riverside Museum is pleased to announce you no longer need a pre-booked ticket to visit.
Monday–Thursday, Saturday: 10am–5pm
Friday, Sunday: 11am–5pm
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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.