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The Kelvingrove Unveiled

With its three-year, $50-million renovation now complete, Glasgow's Kelvingrove
Art Gallery & Museum is ready for the 21st century.

BY KEITH AITKEN

Question: "How do you go about revitalizing a city's favourite day out?" The short answer is, "Very carefully." Particularly if the city in question is Glasgow, not widely thought of as a place where the wise take liberties.

The slightly longer answer is, "Thoughtfully, lavishly, stylishly and with commendable flair and imagination." That, at least, was what this Edinburgh observer thought of the three-year, 28-million refurbishment of the Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery. The real test would come a few weeks after Scottish Life's sneak preview, when those responsible for the transformation were due to take a deep breath and let in the locals.

It doesn't do when you're in Glasgow to speak of Kelvingrove in tones of anything less than measured awe. Many cities have municipal museums and galleries, some of them very fine indeed. But Kelvingrove is the most visited museum in Britain outside London, with more than a million people a year passing through its portals, and much of that footfall is local. Shortly before it closed, the Weegies (as the rest of us call Glaswegians) voted it their favourite building in the city, as if by way of gentle warning. By the same token, when the renovation fundraising programme was launched, the organizers took the gamble of asking the city's general public to contribute 5 million of the cost. No previous public cultural appeal had ever raised anything like that sum. But this one did -- indeed, it was over-subscribed. The wall of honour in the splendidly restored central hall of the museum carries the names of more than 5,500 individuals.

Why? Because Kelvingrove is Glasgow's cultural touchstone. From their earliest years, her children are taken there to familiarize themselves with its treasures. These are considerable: two-thirds of the objects on display rate as artifacts of national or international significance. More important still, though, are two other qualities. First, they are Glasgow's own. They are possessed by Glaswegians with that powerful sense of ownership that only a proud, tough people in a proud, tough city can exert. And, second, Kelvingrove is fun. It wears its learning lightly. Great paintings share the space with stuffed animals, funky suits of armour, flint arrowheads, favourite toys, workers' tools. It is a cultural potpourri, and it would take a dull mind indeed not to find something in its halls and galleries to fascinate and beguile.

The full text of this article is available in the Autumn 2006 issue of Scottish Life.

Click here to preview our feature article on Over The Sea To Skye by Richenda Miers.

Photos courtesy Glasgow City Council (Glasgow Museums)