A City's Tale

“Masks and Masquerades,” an installation of almost 100 plaster heads, welcomes visitors to Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. Image courtesy flickr user dalbera.

“Masks and Masquerades,” an installation of almost 100 plaster heads, welcomes visitors to Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. (

Kelvingrove Art Gallery And Museum
Argyle Street, Glasgow G3 8AG
glasgowlife.org.uk/museums

Walking into the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum fills a visitor with awe. Impressive taxidermy specimens, including an elephant, tiger, and giraffe, line the Centre Hall and beckon to the museum’s natural-history collection. A Spitfire F flown by members of the Glasgow Squadron in the 1940s is suspended from the hall’s towering ceiling. An installation of almost 100 plaster heads frames the entrance to the art galleries. A quick glance around this central space gives a clear impression of what the museum offers: one of the largest civic collections of art and historical artifacts in the world.

Kelvingrove is the most visited tourist destination in Scotland and one of the most visited in the United Kingdom. It is so beloved by locals that when I arrived in Glasgow, every Scot I met said I had to visit. I’m not surprised. The gallery and museum’s extensive collections have both local and international significance, but more than anything Kelvingrove celebrates Scotland, detailing the rich history of this small country and its influence on the world.

The museum is situated by the River Kelvin, next to Kelvingrove Park, which is just down the hill from the University of Glasgow, where William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, conducted his work on thermodynamics. In 1888 the International Exhibition of Science, Art and Industry showcased Glasgow’s fortune; at that time Glasgow was known as the “Second City of the Empire,” particularly for its shipbuilding and industrial might. That strength ushered in a golden age of architecture, civil engineering, and arts. A strong desire to preserve and display the treasures of this period resulted in the establishment of a number of museums, including Kelvingrove, which opened in 1901.

The Centre Hall is the social heart of the museum. During my visit the hall was filled with music from the museum’s historic pipe organ. (Apart from the daily music the organist also offers weekly tours of the organ.) From here the museum is divided along an east-west line, with art taking up most of the east galleries and history, natural history, and industrial arts contained in the west.

One of the highlights in the museum’s art collection is the Salvador Dalí work Christ of Saint John of the Cross. The intimacy of the painting’s display—alone in a small room—adds to the majesty of the experience. On the opposite side of the building is another highlight, “Mackintosh and the Glasgow Style.” This gallery provides an introduction to the great Scottish architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh, a leading light in the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and a pioneer of what became known as the “Glasgow style” of industrial design. Mackintosh became particularly famous for his tearoom designs, one of which is featured in the gallery, reconstructed there after the original building was torn down. The tearoom captures Mackintosh’s synthesis of art, architecture, and design, with equal attention paid to form and function.

Exhibits are family friendly, approachable, and interactive, particularly in the natural-history sections. “Discovery Centres” throughout the building give more in-depth instruction not only on the artifacts themselves but also on how to look at artifacts and works of art.

Still, the family-friendly exhibitions do not discount the adult visitor. Daily talks and tours led by museum docents are available. The Study Centre on the lower level offers a place for visitors to research Glasgow’s history and the museum collections through online and printed reference materials. Programs targeted toward adults and young adults form a significant portion of the museum’s public programming, from adults-only art- and museum-appreciation classes to social events like receptions. These activities turn the museum into a gathering place that can be visited over and over again.

Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery is not a state-of-the-art museum. It does not break new ground in design or exhibition. The breadth of collections on display—art, history, natural history—can at worst seem somewhat disjointed. But the museum feels classic in style rather than old-fashioned. It reintegrates history, art, and science as studies that influence each other as opposed to today’s strict segregation by discipline.

Gigi Naglak is the outreach coordinator at CHF’s Roy Eddleman Institute.