Museum Stories: Kelvingrove


There’s the huge skeleton of a red deer that roamed the Highlands of Scotland in ancient times. There are paintings by Dutch masters and French impressionists, by the Scottish Colourists and the Glasgow Boys. There’s a model of the solar system — an accurate one — made in the early nineteenth century, before modern technology allowed for accurate observation of the paths of the planets. There are dinosaur skeletons, and Salvador Dali’s iconic painting Saint John of the Cross. There are tables and chairs and wall panels designed by ground breaking artist and architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh. There is an Egyptian sarcophagus. There are romantic paintings of Highland mountains and glens, and a painting of Scottish poet Robert Burns as Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara. There’s a SpitFire airplane hanging from the ceiling, a stained glass window with the design of a bluebird, and a tiny wildcat (stuffed) peeking down from the edge of an area by that red deer. What is this? This is Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery in Glasgow, Scotland.

Unusually in the way great museums plan their exhibits, Kelvingrove focuses the objects in its collection to tell stories, stories which are organized by themes. You can learn about the birds of Scotland, for example, or the armour used in medieval times and how that plays into modern day armament. There are stories of Scotland told in paintings and chairs and swords and clothing and in recordings of voices, in things used in everyday life through which you can almost feel their touch. There are plenty of objects at child’s eye level, too — Kelvingrove is a very family friendly place.

Two of my favorite areas of the museum, ones I visit whenever I am in Glasgow, both have to do with Scotland. That Glasgow Boys gallery is one. The Glasgow Boys were a loosely organized group of painters who lived a century and more ago. They chose, often, to paint landscapes of Scotland, people and scenes of day to day life, and scenes from myths and legend, and showed these things though painterly techniques that keep communication and humanity at the center.

Another favorite place is the one about the early people of Scotland. Through object, photograph, sound, and written word, the makers of of this area of the museum evoke what Scotland must have been like for the people who lived then, and again through real objects from ancient times, it is possible to feel the touch of those long ago folk.

But, you say, that seems like a lot to take in. Isn’t it confusing? It’s not. There is the subtle but well thought out respect for story (which among other things means that museum curators can change out objects while still supporting a theme) and another connector, for me, is a sculpture installation which was commissioned especially for Kelvingrove as it was undergoing massive refurbishment about eight years ago. It is by artist Sophie Cave and hangs from the ceiling in Kelvingrove’s main hall. It comprises heads, with faces in expressions which reflect every sort of human emotion. You can look up at these from below, see a changing view as you walk up one staircase or the other, and see them from a bit above on the mezzanine of the second floor. It’s not that Cave’s sculpture dominates the objects and the stories you see from any of these places: it is that her work integrates, or a better way to think of it might be that her art invites you to integrate and connect with all the aspects of the museum. Well done, Glasgow Life and Glasgow Museums and Ms. Cave.

You may also wish to see How to Make Sense of a Big Museum

Photograph by Kerry Dexter, made with permission of Glasgow Museums and Glasgow Life

Kerry Dexter is one of six writers who contribute to Perceptive Travel’s blog. You’ll most often find her writing about travels in Europe and North America in stories that connect to music, history, and the arts, and including such things as Quiet Moments: Glasgow School of Art and Glasgow: Seeing Details.

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  1. Brette April 25, 2014
  2. Alexandra April 26, 2014

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