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Stories from Scotland: Kelvingrove Sets the Tone

By | January 13, 2016

It’s our second day in Glasgow and we’ve just entered the most popular British museum outside of London:  Kelvingrove.  Magnificently Victorian, its ornate red-brick exterior hearkens back to the days when Glasgow’s industries powered the Empire.  But the atmosphere inside is more informal.  Redesigned and reopened in the last decade, the new Kelvingrove is a people’s museum: engaging, accessible and full of surprises.  

Kelvingrove Museum

Kelvingrove Museum. Credit: Janice Gimbel

Case in point:  the first thing we see after entering the museum is a collection of fifty disembodied heads hanging from the ceiling.  Stark white faces on this exhibit express a range of emotions from joy to sorrow, and their eyes follow us as we explore the east court.  People who like it call it fun:  “Like a release of balloons, the heads bring lightness and humour to a grand building.”  That’s how one of the museum’s renovators describes this installation.  Others simply find the “Floating Heads” unnerving.  In any case, they’re certainly unexpected -- and also somehow irreverent given the formality of this building.

Kelvingrove Museum

"Floating Heads", Kelvingrove Museum. Credit: Weldon Gimbel

But irreverence and unexpected juxtapositions are intentional in this museum where art and artifacts are arranged thematically to tell stories, raise questions, and draw the public into discussions.  One gallery asks, “How do the things we make change our lives -- for better or worse?” Another one considers “How Glasgow Inspires and Infuriates People.” Civic pride spills over in the displays on Glasgow’s International Exhibitions and in the section highlighting the Glasgow Boys, a group of artists who rebelled against the art establishment in the late 19th century and painted ordinary Scottish life in avant-garde ways.  A gallery devoted to Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Glasgow School of Art also celebrates the city’s role in the development of Art Nouveau.

The Wassail

“The Wassail”. Credit: Helen Nakajo

From local pride to national identity, this museum offers insight into different ways Scottish people envision Scottishness.  The gallery on “Scottish Identity in Art” specifically explores how popular images of Scotland are linked with the stories of its past. From Robert the Bruce to Sir Walter Scott, we meet the major icons of Scottish culture in these exhibits.  But the multiplicity of the stories urges us to look beyond the stereotypes.  Their range and variety also warn us that we shouldn’t expect to find a single, unified national consciousness in Scotland today.  Being Scottish seems instead to embrace a range of identities as varied and sometimes contentious as the expressions on the faces of the “Floating Heads.” Reflecting on our visit to Kelvingrove a week and a half later, we discuss how this museum in many ways anticipated the themes of our journey in Scotland.  Like characters from Sir Walter Scott’s novels, we too crossed over the Highland line by boat at Loch Lomond.


Cassandra Hannahs

With a Ph.D. in medieval history, Cassandra Hannahs spent most of her academic career at Middlebury College in Vermont, where she was a tenured professor of history. At Middlebury, Cassandra regularly taught courses on Celtic, Viking and Anglo-Norman Studies, as well as more general courses on the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the history of Christianity. In her research and lectures, Cassandra explores the cultural and political exchanges that have historically linked Ireland, Scotland, England, and Europe. As Study Leader for the Smithsonian since 2000, she enjoys sharing her love and knowledge of the British Isles and Ireland with travelers on land and sea.

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