Reopening the Treasure Trove

Since 1902 Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum has ingrained itself on the hearts, minds and imaginations of countless Glaswegians

Feature by Anna Battista | 15 Jul 2006

If you asked a Glaswegian which is their most loved museum or art gallery - not the most "admired", but the most "loved" - in the whole world, chances are you would get one answer; Kelvingrove.

Since 1902 Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum has ingrained itself on the hearts, minds and imaginations of countless Glaswegians, becoming embedded in their DNA, and serving as a source of inspiration and civic pride. This is why there are great expectations for the most visited museum in the UK outside London as it reopens its doors after a £27.9 million refurbishment that kept it closed for three years.

There will be a few surprises in store for the visitors. First and foremost, the basement has been completely renovated: the new space hosts a temporary exhibition room, a shop, a restaurant with a £1.5 million kitchen run by Chef Adi Schmid, and the Campbell Hunter Education Wing, which can be accessed through a corridor decorated with tiles made from drawings by Glasgow's schoolchildren.

Accessing the main hall of the building from the basement, you'll find yourself in the Kelvingrove "piazza" that now looks inundated with light since the stone walls have been cleaned and the curators' offices - which used to block the light - stripped out.

Previously Kelvingrove was divided in two, with the museum downstairs exploring the world of natural history and the art gallery upstairs. After a survey revealed that only 20% of visitors would go and admire the paintings in the gallery section, a new approach to display items was devised. A major division is retained between the west wing of the building devoted to the "Life" theme and the east wing dubbed the "Expression" wing and characterised by Sophy Cave's installation displaying human emotions - but artefacts and disciplines have been mixed in the attempt to tell stories about the objects displayed.

The west wing is dominated by the parade of animals - among them the iconic Sir Roger the Elephant - with, hanging above it, a Spitfire that seems to be flying out of the arms and armour gallery located on the first floor. This gallery, dubbed "Conflicts and Consequences", has been radically turned around: arms and armour from the human world are now displayed together with the animal armours that inspired them, while the consequences of conflicts are analysed, with displays that explore the horrors perpetrated throughout history.
Among the best galleries of this wing there is one chronicling the life of Scotland's first inhabitants, that also gives a chance to explore life in the Arctic thanks to the "Object Cinema", a modern audiovisual display; the Egyptian gallery that now boasts a mummy on loan from the British Museum and the "Creatures of the Past" exhibit that features a dinosaur skeleton recently acquired from the States.

In the east wing paintings by John Quentin Pringle are exhibited in the same room with photographs from local camera clubs, not too far from a room dedicated to Charles Rennie Mackintosh decorated with panels from the Ingram Street Tearooms. In an adjacent room design is explored with a display dedicated to monorails, a racing car from the '20s, and Victorian dresses.

There are also two Scottish galleries, one for the Glasgow Boys and the Scottish colourists, and another dedicated to Scottish identity. The top galleries are devoted to Dutch, French and Italian art and feature works by seminal painters, from Rembrandt to Van Gogh; from Cezanne to Titian. One of the most important pieces of the art collection is still the controversial Christ of St John of the Cross by Salvador Dali, acquired by the late Tom Honeyman while he was director of the gallery.

Will Glaswegians enjoy the new and improved Kelvingrove? It might take a while for the most conservative visitors to reacquaint themselves with it, and some might have the feeling they have been somehow transported to the Vittoriale, the monumental and chaotic villa-cum-museum on the Garda Lake where Italian poet Gabriele D'Annunzio lived. New generations of visitors and newcomers will love Kelvingrove though, and, hopefully, will spend many of their weekends there, admiring the 8,000 pieces on display, using its "piazza" as a meeting place and developing that same sense of respect and admiration fused with affection that previous generations of Glaswegians had for "their" museum.

Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum reopens on 11th July. The Lord Provost's Pageant celebrating the treasures of Kelvingrove takes place on 8th July, moving from George Square at 12 noon.