Sea-changes all along the waterfront

10th June 2011 at 01:00
The revamped Riverside Museum on the banks of the Clyde is the new home to Glasgow's Transport Museum, where the emphasis on history's human stories gives added drive to the learning experience on offer.

When the new Riverside Museum on the Clyde opens its doors on 21 June, visitors will be delighted by what they find. Not only is the collection housed in a stunning new building on the waterfront near the Armadillo and Glasgow Science Centre, but the most popular items have been reconstructed and enhanced.

Designed by world-renowned architect Zaha Hahid, the building's roof undulates like waves, while its glass front reflects the river below. The new home for Glasgow's museum of travel and transport and berthing place for The Tall Ship Glenlee forms a major part of the redevelopment of the city's waterfront.

The Riverside Museum has been funded to the tune of pound;74 million. The project started in 2004, following the success of the renovation of Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery. It received a pound;21.6 million Heritage Lottery Grant, with the rest of the money coming from Glasgow City Council and the Riverside Museum Appeal. The old Transport Museum had been housed in unsuitable premises for so long that some of the collection had been damaged. It was decided that for a collection of international significance, a purpose-built home was needed.

Much of the museum will be recognisable. The most popular part of the old Transport Museum was the street, according to customer feedback. That has been improved on, so visitors can now enter the shops, get a better look at the items on display, and learn more from digital display units. They can sit in the Mitre Bar, with the original fixtures and fittings from a bar in the Trongate, or visit other attractions from a bygone age.

Two further streets have been recreated, where outlets such as a pawn shop and a baby shop have allowed Glasgow Museums to showcase more of their items. In the photography studio on the street, visitors can order a photograph of themselves set in an old-style background. And in the saddlers', electronic screens show people using the tools on display.

The trams are all there, of course, and the uniquely-painted camper van and the vintage cars. But there is plenty that is new, such as 30 automobiles on a special car wall and a South African locomotive.

The museum takes on more of a story display approach, with 150 displays in total, many of which are electronic. The people who used these modes of transport are included where possible.

A tram display tells the story of the Glasgow tram drivers who volunteered for the Second World War. Inside is a letter from one of them - a father writing to his son back home, relating information about the war, and asking how the child was.

A glass display above a model of HMS Hood, which sank in the Second World War, contains 500 lights, one for each of the men. When the lights go out, only three are left on - the number of men who survived. It is a poignant reminder of the fate which awaited many.

"Unlike most transport and technology museums, we put people in, more than the last museum," says visitor studies curator Sam Groves. "We tell the stories behind the displays - who made them, how, who used them - to get the social history. It is an unusual approach in transport and technology museums.

"We have a commitment to the Heritage Fund to change eight displays a year. Much will come from visitor feedback. And we will have feedback screens in the museum."

Suggestions and feedback from a variety of consumer panels have already ensured that the human aspect is very much there. For the past six years, Ms Groves has been working with six different panels - community; frequent visitor; youth; junior; educational advisory and access (representing those who have particular difficulties) - getting their views and opinions, and feeding them into the design of the museum.

Most story displays have universal appeal, but each has a target audience, whether it's schools, under-fives, families, teenagers, or people who have sensory impairments.

The teen panel, for example, assisted with the design of the dancing bus display. Designed to tell visitors about the dancing buses of the Fifties and the rules and regulations surrounding it, and with glass cabinets showcasing the dresses, the display was modified when the teenagers voiced their lack of interest in dancing and discos as a leisure pursuit. This came as a surprise to the museum staff, but the opinion of the key audience could not be ignored.

The lack of interest in dancing also proved how important it was to get young people's experience. "The point of all the panels was two-way dialogue," says Ms Groves. "We got a lot from the experience and it was invaluable. We think they got a lot from it too. It is a great way to get feedback easily. We could have got consultation or spoken to people on the streets but that doesn't always work."

Each panel met a minimum of three times a year, providing input into the key decision-making stages of the museum, reviewing and advising on displays and technology and helping to ensure that the museum met the needs of the target audience.

P4-7 children from Hyndland and St Constantine's primaries and S1-4 pupils from Hillhead High helped the museum staff on projects such as developing content for a multi-player computer game.

Giving visitors the experience they are looking for is central to the museum's philosophy, and is what Ms Groves calls a "twin approach": "The significance of the collections and visitor needs are the two things which are embedded in the project. This is why my role with the panel is so significant."

Other lessons concerning the schools programme have been learnt from the reopening of Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery and various museums. It will not start until January 2012, to allow the museum to quieten down a bit and to avoid schools having to queue too much.

The schools' programme is for early years to secondary, says learning and access curator Rachel Lees, and workshops will be one-and-a-half hours long. There is a whole range of workshops, all related to the collections, and with Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) built in.

There will also be packs available for self-led groups, which schools can download from the internet before they come, she says. These will have a floor plan show where displays are which tie in with various topics - from the Victorians to people of the past, to citizenship.

"We hope this will be available from August (2011), and it really ties in with the whole issue of the child taking control of learning," she says.

At the same time, the learning team will start working on the floor of the museum, leading CfE-based activities on subjects such as steam power, several times a day.

"Over the first six months we will be piloting ideas," explains Miss Lees. "We want schools to have the best experience with us."

Riverside numbers

2 Extra streets, compared with the old museum

150 Story displays

1,500 Objects in the old museum

3,000 Objects in the new museum

6 Computer terminals with internet access for visitors

92 Pieces of IT in the museum

pound;74m Total cost of the project

Children's input welcomed aboard as transport museum gears up for hi- tech

We're in the city centre offices of 55 degrees, the company contracted to provide all the systems architecture for the Riverside Museum - audio-visuals, interactives and multi-player games. The decision about what goes ahead lies not with the IT people, but with the children.

Six children from St Constantine's Primary in Glasgow have arrived with their teacher and depute head. The children are a mixture of P5-7s and they settle in very quickly. They know the set-up and they know Susie Ironside, Glasgow Museums' research assistant, and Sam Groves, the museum's visitor studies curator. This makes the session relaxed and the pupils keen to voice their thoughts.

They are here to test and review an interactive game which will be in the new museum. In pairs, they take their positions and listen to the instructions before they begin to play. Once they have finished, they gather in a meeting room where everyone gets the chance to speak.

"What do you think was the purpose of the game?" asks Sam. "What were your thoughts on the length of the instructions?"

Claire Wasige, 10, thinks they were read out too fast, while Megan Bradley,10, thought the speed was fine.

Did the instructions make sense? Megan admits that she didn't know where on the screen to look and suggests having a button to press to indicate that the player is ready to play. Claire thinks it would help if the questions were read out aloud to players, and the others agree. All thought the game was difficult and cite time, more than graphics, as the problem.

A second version of the game is put to the test and the pupils play again before assembling in the meeting room to compare both versions.

"It will be really good when it opens," says Megan. "People will enjoy going. In the old museum you couldn't go into the shops and you used to try to open the doors but couldn't. They have taken that on board."

Both Megan and Samantha Ferguson, 10, have starred in movies for the museum, sharing what life was like in the past.

"I starred in one where I walked into the Mitre Bar," says Samantha. "And I did some voice-overs for the Italian cafe and the pawn shop."

Megan acted in a video to show what life was like just after the Clydebank bombing. "It explains why they didn't open the subway during that time period," she says.

Yvonne Henry, the depute head at St Constantine's, says: "It has been absolutely fantastic. The children have really enjoyed it from the start. They had a visit to the old museum and they were asked their opinions. They have all enjoyed the process.

"When the building was just beginning, they had a visit to the site with their hard hats and they were told where it all would be, including the Tall Ship. They were so excited to see the building from bottom up. When they got back to school they told all their classmates and have spread the word. Other parents have said their kids are desperate to go."

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