Monday, August 8, 2011

In praise of Scottish Museums

When the  Burrell collection first opened it created a buzz in the museum world much wider than its native Scotland, which was driven by a number of factors. First of all the building 3 miles from the centre of Glasgow was a stunner, since voted Scotland’s second greatest post war building. Secondly the collection was eclectic, including as it does everything from mediaeval architectural features, arms and armour, Islamic art, to Impressionist paintings and modern sculpture, all put together by one man, Sir Walter Burrell in the late 19th and early 20th century. And thirdly the setting in the historic Pollock Country Park allows for the place to be a destination for family days out.

At the time of opening (1983) it provided a focus on Scottish museums which had hitherto been seen as somewhat parochial.

So when the City of Glasgow reopened their city museum and art gallery in 2006 in the Victorian splendour of Kelvingrove(interestingly voted by locals Glasgow’s favourite building), the museum sector seriously sat up and watched what was happening in Scotland. Kelvingrove has since gone on to win various awards and is currently the most visited museum in the UK outside London. Again like the Burrell it combines a stunning building with eclectic displays housed within. The spitfire fighter plane zooming low over the stuffed elephant in the grand entrance hall says it all.

So it’s great to see excellence being piled onto excellence with the opening of the refurbished  National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh two weeks ago. Once again we see similar ingredients, a magnificent Victorian building displaying a ‘gloriously eclectic archive of objects that Scottish explorers, inventors, soldiers and scientists brought back from their travels’ ( to quote the Sydney Morning Herald’s Travel editor - yes it even got the lead story in the paper’s Travel section last week end). That eclecticism is manifested in a great white shark alongside the world’s oldest surviving colour television and Alexander Fleming’s Nobel Prize medal. And the visitor numbers show what the public makes of it, 6,000 visitors in the first hour, and 22,000 on the first day of reopening and 100,000 in under a week.

You could say the challenge is in keeping those visitors coming back, but certainly Kelvingrove is showing it can. The broader lessons to my mind are that a) never underestimate the power of a great building as part of the visitor attraction to museums, and b) that we have an audience out there that loves eclecticism, the quirkiness of collecting and the stories that such objects can tell.

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