Hidden cache comes to light

16th January 2004 at 00:00
Glasgow has opened a wondrous trove of art, most of it seen previously only by museum staff. Dorothy-Grace Elder delves into the cave of treasures

What do Florence, Paris, Madrid and Glasgow's less glamorous Nitshill area have in common? They all contain vast treasure houses of art. But only at Nitshill can the public see previously hidden works as well as famous pieces put into storage.

Paintings by Lowry, Hornel, Millais and Spencer, plus Epstein statues, Mackintosh furniture and ancient Egyptian artefacts are all here in their eye-popping glory. When Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum closed its doors last summer for refurbishment, much of the collection was sent over for safe keeping.

Some 200,000 pieces of art, worth at least pound;550 million, are held at the Glasgow Museums Resource Centre, but it is much more than a simple warehouse. The city is defying the scandalous waste of gallery treasures in Britain, where about 90 per cent are not on display but rather hidden in secret stores, some never seen, and allowing seven-days-a-week public access to the pound;7.4 million custom-built store. Glasgow may even have scored a European first with this viewing facility.

Bridget McConnell, the city's director of cultural and leisure services, says it is an important new resource for schools, colleges and universities as well as the wider public.

"Glasgow's collection is internationally important and is the biggest civic collection in Britain," she says. "But whether it's a 4,000-year-carved stone or a John Byrne painting, this is about making people's heritage accessible."

So why hold such an Aladdin's cave of treasure in Nitshill? Ms McConnell explains: "There is a lot of cliched talk many people don't like about social inclusion but this is real inclusion. The area is being regenerated and is good for road and rail access.

One of the most important patrons of the arts, Kate Cranston, came from Nitshill and her home was at Hous'Hill, nearby, Ms McConnell points out, and as you step into the centre you see a display of Mackintosh furniture which originally came from there.

Collections which can be seen for the first time include paintings, ceramics, glass, sculpture and archeological specimens.

As well as tours, the centre also offers two viewing rooms where people can examine requested pieces, an activity room which provides space for learning programmes and a reference library. A series of talks and workshops for formal and informal learners is planned and the Open Museum outreach service will continue to provide access to the collections via community based projects and the education and access team based at the centre.

Glasgow has more education officers for museums and the arts than most other cities: there are 45 in total.

"The education and access workers who take the children around make the place very user friendly," says Bill Roddie, headteacher at Nitshill Primary, who was visiting with some of his P5 and P6 pupils.

"Some of our children want to come here every day and there is an after school club now," he says.

"The kids don't realise they are being educated. They just think it's fun."

There is a radical difference between seeing art here and in a traditional museum: there is no hallowed halls atmosphere. The main pod (which is a giant hangar) gives you the feeling of having chanced upon a huge cache of treasure collected by unusually tidy and careful pirates.

Temperature control systems dictate where things are kept, more than categories, so there is a seemingly random juxtaposition of goodies.

Epsteins are under the same roof as Sean Read's modern fun statue of the Queen clutching her doorstep milk bottles and racing newspaper, called 'Happy and Glorious'. Sir Walter Scott no longer looks down on people; he is in marble slumber on the floor.

The children from Nitshill Primary bob excitedly from treasure to treasure, calling "Look at this!" and "No, over here. See this one!"

The 1,000 paintings do not hang on the walls; they are on racks which can be pulled out for viewing. Out shoot Lowrys, next a rack of Hornels and closeby are some of Beryl Cook's lardy ladies.

Andrew Mansell, aged 10, says: "I have a favourite painting. It's a self-portrait of John Byrne in an old cardigan. It's great coming here because they pull it out when I ask."

"The ancient Egyptians are always a winner," says Mr Roddie. "The kids go for the gruesome mummy stories."

In fact, nine-year-old Steven Flanagan has been spilling out facts about Egyptians since arriving. "Did you know the Egyptians pulled the brains out with a hook and threw them away?" he offers.

There are seven pods in all, one of which is open and the others are set to open in the coming months.

"I'm sure teachers will come from all over," says Mr Roddie. "This is a national resource."

The Glasgow Museums Resource Centre, 200 Woodhead Road, South Nitshill, tel 0141 276 93009375. Open daily. Morning tours can be arranged; daily tour, restricted to about 15, 2.30pm. Book in advancewww.glasgowmuseums.com

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