Paisley Museum: Keeping History Alive

There are certain things which, for whatever reason, perennially manage to fire children’s imaginations. Amongst these are dinosaurs, monsters, and wild animals (the fiercer the better). As a child, I was no different. Thus, my earliest visits to Paisley Museum were very much taken up with gazing at the enormous stuffed lion, nicknamed ‘Buddy’ (‘buddies’ being the affectionate nickname given to residents of my hometown). The old beast reared up, its front paws resting on a plinth, its mane impossibly lustrous and its mouth open to reveal deadly rows of teeth. To any child, Buddy made – and continues to make – a thrilling prospect. Buddy is long-dead, robbed of his threat; yet he isn’t. He’s alive, vibrant, and ready to roar.

Buddy the Lion
PHOTOGRAPH BY Steven Veerapen

As I grew older, I ceased to be enthralled merely by the sight of the stuffed lion, of course. Rather, I became increasingly interested in history. Where had the creature come from? When? Who had hunted the grand old beast, and what encouraged them to do so? What kind of world did the hunters and prey inhabit? For that matter, how and when did the other specimens in the natural history section of the museum – dinosaur fossils, birds, bizarre-looking shells – come to be there?

This was, to me, always the delight of Paisley Museum: it was a building which not only housed historical treasures (and which inspired questions about them) but which had history woven into its fabric. From the outside, the museum is every inch a Victorian construct, with its Greek-inspired Doric columns and wide flight of steps sweeping up to the entrance. It is the kind of place one feels diminished on approaching – conscience that you might better enter dressed in top hat and tails or crinoline skirt. As a history addict, I was fascinated by the unchanging building, which seemed to conjure up, right there on the High Street, a world which had long since passed. Inside was no different – it was like stepping back in time: it was entering the world of Downton Abbey or Upstairs, Downstairs whilst remaining in jeans and t-shirt.

Existing Paisley museum
PHOTOGRAPH BY Steven Veerapen

At the moment, the museum is undergoing a £42 million refurbishment (re-imagined Paisley museum pictured at top), aimed at bringing the grand old chocolate-box building in the 21st century. With an estimated date for reopening of 2022, the new-old (or old-made-new) museum looks set to wed Victorian splendour with modern aesthetics, joining a new red-glazed entrance vestibule to the old building, and constructing new gardens and learning zones. It is hoped that visitor numbers will quadruple – that the past will be brought thrillingly to life in a way which will enthral modern generations. The building I knew and loved will not be going anywhere, but it will be refreshed – made new and more appealing. One will still step back in time, but whilst keeping one foot in the present. History will be brought into the here and now.

This is therefore an exciting time for Paisley Museum (and for the town, which hopes to benefit from increased foot traffic). But it is a more exciting time for visitors, young and old, to the museum. As the popularity of historical dramas and historical fiction show, young people continue to be interested in history (natural, social, and political), and it is important that they be introduced to it in modern, dynamic ways. When the doors reopen, a new generation of children will be able to gaze – in fear and awe – at Buddy the lion. And Buddy will be able to gaze back, his mouth still frozen in its perpetual snarl. His surroundings might have changed, as they have changed over the decades of his afterlife in the museum, but he will continue to provide a vital link between the past, the present, and the future – just as the museum has done and will do for years to come. History is not dead, nor is it dusty. It is the job of museums to keep it alive, inspirational, and, always, accessible and exciting.

Link to Renfrewshire Council’s page on the Museum:

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Steven Veerapen

Steven Veerapen was born in Glasgow and raised in Paisley. Pursuing an interest in the sixteenth century, he was awarded a first-class Honours degree in English, focussing his dissertation on representations of Henry VIII’s six wives. He then received a Masters in Renaissance studies, and a Ph.D. investigating Elizabethan slander.

He writes historical fiction set in the early modern period, covering the reigns of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, and James VI and I; additionally, he has written nonfiction studies of Mary Queen of Scots’ relationship with her brother; Elizabeth I and her last favourite, the Earl of Essex; and an academic study of slander and sedition in the reign of Elizabeth. Steven’s new series of novels – set during the reign of Henry VIII – will begin with Polygon’s publication of Of Blood Descended in May 2022.