Art treasures find temporary homes

18th July 2003 at 01:00
Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum is now closed for refurbishment but its collection can be seen in a new light at other venues, writes Gillian Macdonald.

The doors are firmly locked, the blue and white balloons have disappeared, the families have all dispersed. "Museum reopens February 2006" declares the blue sign at the entrance to Glasgow's Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.

For only the second time in 100 years (the first was during the Second World War) there will be no wandering in to the cool marble hallways of the grand Victorian edifice to shelter from the sun this summer, no visits to Sir Roger the elephant or the dinosaurs or the art galleries upstairs with their famous Dutch, French and Scottish collections. Kelvingrove receives more than one million visitors a year, including some 28,000 children on school visits, but they will have to reorientate themselves to find some of Scotland's greatest national treasures rehoused around the city as the building undergoes a pound;27.5 million, three-year refurbishment. So where can they find them?

Two hundred of the best items can be seen at the outstanding Art Treasures of Kelvingrove exhibition at the McLellan Galleries in Sauchiehall Street, original home of much of the collection prior to the building of Kelvingrove for the International Exhibition of 1901.

Furnishings including Mackintosh chairs and tables, Wylie and Lochhead sideboards and Frances Macdonald embrodieries fill a whole gallery. In the next room, paintings by Fergusson, Peploe and Cadell hang on walls dedicated to the Scottish Colourists, the artists' flamboyant signatures writ large above their work.

Each room has a totally different atmosphere. The dark and intimate Dutch paintings are in one gallery with Rembrandt's gleaming Man in Armour at the centre, and the bright blues and golds of medieval Italy are in the room next door, with church music playing in the background.

In another room, a treasure trove of some of Scotland's finest inventions, eccentric brass and wood contraptions, includes John Logie Baird's first television, unrecognisable as the predecessor of the box sets in all our homes.

This is an exhibition any city would be proud of and one of the best aspects - which augurs well for schoolchildren and teachers - is the interpretation of the works. Instead of little labels that so few stop to read is a wall panel giving a succinct background to the collection in each room, a postcard-sized label by each exhibit outlining briefly - and interestingly - its significance and, for those who would know more, a stand in each gallery giving easily digested information about each artist.

The interpretation panels are prototypes for the revamped Kelvingrove, says Anne Wallace, Glasgow Museums' education officer. They will change as different approaches are tried.

Jigsaws and activities in the galleries encourage children to look closely at the paintings. Folding stools in the rooms invite visitors to help themselves and stay awhile.

For further access to the Kelvingrove collection, schools will have to wait until November, when the Open Museum, a huge purpose-built museum warehouse and visitor centre in Nitshill on Glasgow's south side, will receive them.

This development is described by Mark O'Neill, the city's museums and galleries director, as "a radical breakthrough". Here, 100,000 objects that were stored in the Kelvingrove stacks (about a tenth of the collection) will be accessible 361 days a year and when Kelvingrove reopens, the reserve collection will remain.

An education and access curator is being appointed. Highlight tours will be led by learning assistants and groups will also be able to visit special storage pods to see a specific collection, whether paintings, arms and armour or ethnography. A schools activity room will serve for workshop sessions and lectures, object viewing rooms will allow small groups to view a selected object (this must be pre-booked) and there will be a reference library and research room.

In the meantime, schools can contact Ms Wallace to direct them to the best venue for their curriculum project. If it is knights and castles or the Egyptians, it will be the Burrell Collection in Pollok Country Park. If it is dinosaurs, it will be the Hunterian Museum at Glasgow University. If it is Jacobites, North Americans, Romans or Vikings, they will have to wait for the Open Museum.

The temporary closure of Kelvingrove will have a huge knock-on effect in Glasgow over the next few years, as Lord Macfarlane of Bearsden, chairman of the refurbishment appeal, said at the launch of the plans. However, the refurbished galleries are expected to attract two million visitors in the first year and contribute to the economic regeneration of the city.

New areas of the Victorian building will be opened up. The main entrance will, for the first time, be at ground level, giving easy access to wheelchairs and pushchairs. The grand old marble-floored entrance hall will have its pillars freed of hardboard accretions and, on the first floor balcony, staff offices to the north will be removed to let the light flood in and restore the much-loved building to its former glory. Cellars and stores will be converted into a temporary exhibition space, expected to attract touring exhibitions of international standard, and a flexible education space will offer a range of programmes for school groups.

Instead of 5,000 objects on display, as hitherto, there will be 8,000.

Galleries will be themed, with paintings and artefacts brought together.

Special lighting will illuminate a key painting in the room while a voicetrack draws attention to its special features. Three discovery centres dedicated to hands-on learning will cover art, the environment and history and teaching; each will have its own learning assistant to guide children.

Mr O'Neill says they will be getting as many things out of cases as possible and wherever feasible they will be real objects, not copies.

Modern technology will be used "discreetly" to create a 21st-century museum in a Victorian building.

Glasgow Museums education officer Anne Wallace, tel 0141 287 2748

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