What’s In-Store, Glasgow?

Kelvin Hall - image © Page\Park Architects

Kelvin Hall – image © Page\Park Architects

While the atmosphere in museum circles prior to George Osborne’s budget last week was tinged with a distinct air of impending doom, one which is unlikely to have alleviated in smaller regional museums, there was at least some good news. The decision to retain free entry to national museums undoubtedly was the most important, however the most intriguing was a further commitment to public access to some of the UK’s finest collections. In his statement, Osborne pledged £150 million to allow for the construction of a new state-of-the-art storage facility to rehome the hidden collections of the British Museum, Science Museum and V&A. This will not only improve conditions for the objects, but for people too, providing the public with access to their national treasures without having to wait patiently for an exhibition to reveal them.

 

In Scotland we are ahead of this game already. The Glasgow Museums Resource Centre (GMRC) has been operating for several years now, allowing the public to make appointments at their leisure to view its collections, and the National Museum of Scotland opened a similar site in Edinburgh this year. There are some who argue that accessible storage is not the answer however, and that national museums should improve the visibility of stored treasures by loaning them to smaller museums in need of fresh attractions. Steven Parissien for example, director of Warwickshire’s Compton Verney gallery this week accused London’s national museums of “cultural colonialism” in their hoarding of stored masterpieces.

Visitors at GMRC - image © Glasgow Life

Visitors at GMRC – image © Glasgow Life

There are few who would refute the argument that a loaning of these objects to smaller institutions would be desirable but the reality is that this is not always possible. Some museum objects are stored rather than publicly displayed because they have stringent conservational requirements, while some others are set aside as research material. In some cases objects can be caught up in red tape making them ineligible for display. Glasgow’s Burrell Collection for example was famously trapped in storage purgatory for 39 years due to William Burrell’s problematic bequest that his treasures be given to the people of the city, but couldn’t be displayed within it.

 

The chief reason larger museum services have so much in storage however is that the collections are simply that vast. Glasgow’s flagship museum Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery, even with its cavernous interiors and “salon-hangs,” can only host 8,000 of the 1 million objects in the city’s public collections. Even with a further eight museums across the city exhibiting from the same resource pool, less than 1% of this collection is on display outside of the GMRC. Glasgow Museums could fill all the smaller museums in its vicinity and its need for storage would remain unchanged.

 

This is why the Kelvin Hall Project is so exciting. Set to open in the summer next year, “Phase 1” of the initiative will see the historic venue re-open as a “centre for cultural excellence,” housing publicly accessible collections for The Hunterian, Glasgow Museums (from remaining non-GMRC stores) and The National Library of Scotland, alongside extensive teaching facilities. Additionally, the site will feature areas for objects to be conserved in public view, beginning with the Charles Rennie Mackintosh-designed suite from Mrs Cranton’s Ingram Street Tearooms.

 

Belgium’s Museum aan de Stroom in Antwerp is one institution that has mastered the idea of accessible storage. Opened to the public in 2011, the galleries and storerooms are housed in the same building, with visitors free to transition between both at their leisure. The storerooms function in essence like an extension of the museum, with everything made visible, merely without the flair or interpretation of that which is officially exhibited. This gives visitors a unique opportunity to really engage with the artworks or themes that inspire them by allowing them to immediately discover similar or related objects. In addition to this, the storeroom also seeks to educate visitors about conservation and its other primary functions.

Visible storage at Museum aan de Stroom - image © Filip Dujardin

Visible storage at Museum aan de Stroom – image © Filip Dujardin

Kelvin Hall will share many of Museum aan de Stroom’s attributes. Its public conservations and easy-to-access objects being key, but it is its location that is most desirable. While the GMRC is a little out of the way, Kelvin Hall is directly across the street from Kelvingrove, and following the completion of “Phase 2” of the project, will also house the exhibited collection of The Hunterian (currently displayed across Glasgow University). Following this, The Hunterian would have the ability to emulate Museum aan de Stroom entirely, with only one set of traffic lights preventing Kelvingrove from doing likewise.

 

It is in this period between Phase 1 and 2 of the Kelvin Hall Project that I often worry about public perception of what it actually is. Making the collections accessible is one thing, getting the public to understand the endeavour is another. While an incredible resource in its own right, prior to the completion of Phase 2, Kelvin Hall will function best as an incredible supplement to Kelvingrove Museum, and I hope the public appreciate this; my message to them when it opens next year is simply, use it. Few museums in the world can offer so much of their collections in one place like that; I very much doubt Osborne’s new storage centre in London will be particularly close to its national museums (which are already half an hour from each other). Those stores will make hidden treasures visible if you make time to seek them out, Kelvin Hall meanwhile, will have brought them to you.

This article was published by The Scotsman on 01.12.2015

Advertisements

Duties and Charges

crowds around Rosetta Stone, British Museum - image © Stephanie Pearson

Crowds around the Rosetta Stone, British Museum – image © Stephanie Pearson

A little over a year ago I attended the first in a series of “Museum of the Future” debates at the British Museum. The theme of this particular event was accessibility and how the institution could make changes to its operations in order to cope with its increasing visitor traffic. As you would expect from a public forum, there were good ideas and terrible ones too, and it is interesting to see that both the best and worst of those tabled at the event have come to prominence in recent weeks.

The best idea was undoubtedly that the British Museum needs a bigger entrance. Its current size presents the dual negatives of being both impractically small for the sheer volume of visitors who pass through it, but it is also distinctly unwelcoming when viewed from the gates of its main entrance on Great Russell Street. I suggested at the time that creating new entranceways would negate the aura of privacy created by small doors atop grand flights of stairs, as IM Pei’s pyramid has done at Paris’ Louvre, and by the 2011 refurbishment of the National Museum of Scotland. The British Museum is reportedly considering widening its existing two-metre front door in order to improve visitor flow, which may do little still to increase the sense of “welcome” portrayed by its problematic entrance but it’s an improvement none the less.

Speaking of welcome, a consideration that certainly isn’t is the idea proposed by one member of the audience at the debate that the museum could increase its income by charging “foreign visitors” to enter. This was rightly met with groans of derision at the time so it is surprising to see it now being discussed. To be more specific, the British Museum is considering levying a charge for the admission of commercial tour groups. As annoying as they can often be, standing around looking confused with their matching caps and selfies sticks, this is discriminatory and unacceptable.

Despite its name, the British Museum is, in its own words, “a museum of the world, for the world.” So to charge some of the world and not the other is unfair. I appreciate the grievance that these tour operators in London are profiting from their free service however any charge to the companies will be passed onto their customers, creating an indirect entry fee which is not permissible. If tourists want to pay someone not to tell them how simple it is to get the Tube to Tottenham Court Road and walk around the corner, more fool them.

The continued diversity of the British Museum’s collection is also largely predicated on the fact that it is exhibited for free. Take the high profile Parthenon Marbles for example. One of the museums key counter-arguments in the repatriation debate is that the objects are part of the greater heritage of all civilisation, not just Greece, and they are more ethically placed in an institution that is easier to visit and won’t charge visitors to see them. Having already surrendered the argument that the marbles cannot be moved by loaning the statue of Ilissos to The Hermitage in St Petersburg earlier this year, you would imagine they’d be keen not to surrender a further, and more legitimate claim to their retention.

Jonathan Jones, The Guardian’s answer to an arts Jeremy Clarkson goes further, stating he believes that, “tourists should be giving the British Museum money, and so should the rest of us.” He believes UK museums should be striving to emulate their fee-charging counterparts in France and Spain, not the other way around. He is wrong though. Museums are struggling financially due to government cuts which could see many lose as much as 40% of their funding, not because people aren’t paying for tickets. Free culture is not only desirable, the MoMA’s PS1 in New York for example has recently used a grant from the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Foundation to waive entrance fees to citizens for a full year, but free culture also works.

Glasgow is great example. Currently playing host to the 2015 Turner Prize, the eyes of many in the art world will be in and on the city at a time when a commitment to the arts made during its European City of Culture year in 1990 is really coming to fruition. Glasgow now boasts a world-class civic museum service offering nine different free museums and galleries. Investment in these services was predicated on a trickle-down service economy that would rejuvenate a city struggling socially and economically with its post-industrial status. Take Finnieston for example, it is not by chance that the Kelvingrove Museum’s 2006 refurbishment coincided with what was the beginning of a blossoming bar and restaurant scene. One that has gone on to provide a leisure infrastructure capable of meeting the demands of The Hydro arena and cemented the area as Glasgow’s chief entertainment destination.

While the museum cannot take all of the credit for this, along with the Museum of Transport (then still residing at Kelvin Hall) it provided a cultural spine upon which to flesh out the skeletal area with the “cappuccino economy” City of Culture 1990 had aimed to provide by driving visitors into it. Look at any of the other Glasgow postcodes experiencing similar rejuvenations and you will find cultural institutions close by; Partick and Dumbarton Road served by the new Riverside Museum, Dennistoun in walking distance from the People’s Palace and St Mungo’s Museum of Religious Art and Life, and the Tramway Gallery and Burrell Collection in Shawlands.

Most observable of all however is that all of these venues are free, to everyone, and they always should be. The public funding which has kept them so has helped improve these parts of the city for residents and visitors alike. The cut-happy government should recognise this. Diverting the public money that keeps museums free out of the sector and then forcing them to recoup it through entry fees actually costs people more. Individuals like Jonathan Jones would be wise to remember that it is museums who should be charged with bettering peoples lives, not the public for the privilege.

This article was published by The Scotsman on 10.11.2015