Visiting The Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum, Glasgow

You’ve got to love a free museum and this is, if nothing else, a free museum (like most of the museums in the UK worth their salt)! Not paying anything on our way in was a nice reminder that although we were in Scotland, we were still in the UK. Still connected with London, which we’d come from earlier that very morning...

As an aside I’ve got to say, right upfront, that the most astonishing thing about this museum was to me wasn't actually the collection. Because we'd been traveling since before the sun came up, we got tired pretty quicklky, and so sat for coffee in their cafeteria. And what struck me most about the museum was how MASSIVELY inexpensive everything was! I had the reverse of sticker shock... I wanted to buy one of everything because they were undercharging for everything. We got 2 coffees, 2 waters, a cookie and a slice of cake for about $7 which is what you'd pay just for the 2 waters in Manhattan. So it was a nice introduction to the idea that not everywhere in the UK expects you to pay “London prices."

The museum itself is a hodgepodge of all sorts of items. It consists of three floors in what I’d call a large-ish “classic” style museum. It looks as if it were built at the same time as the Natural History Museum in New York and the older museums of London… they all have a similar look and feel; columns and pillars out front, rectangular and massive floor-plans with lots of staggered galleries; usually made of cut stone, red brick, or concrete blocks… you know the type. This one is red brick, but has all the requisite pillars and columns you’d expect of a Victorian era museum. It's big, too... but not as big as the *really* big museums.

Anyway this place has a bit of everything. There are several dozens paintings by well known artists but not really a spectacular collection of any one artist in particular; they’ve got a Rubens; a Van Gogh; a Picasso; etc… but they’re not trying to be “just” an art museum… they’re an ‘everything’ museum!

That said I do have to give a tip-of-the-hat to what was, I gather, a Rembrandt “show” that we stumbled upon. It was so small and under-publicized that I actually had no idea they were having a Rembrandt show. It consisted of one painting, on loan, of Rembrandt’s young bride Saskia in a dress. It happens to be one of my favorites of his paintings and I’ve seen it in NYC and Amsterdam. But it was a treat to see it again in Glasgow. It’s a great representation of what Rembrandt does so incredibly well in his paintings of armor, jewelry, lace, and other intricately-detailed surfaces in all his masterpieces; in fact it’s a perfect of example of why he was such a virtuoso painter… the incredible detail you see when you look at it from just a few feet away scatters in a magical trick; the lace becomes an abrasion of jagged forms, stylized and haphazardly laid upon one another.

His ‘spontaneous’ details, like the lace at the front of this dress, are what blow my mind every time I see him pull one of these tricks from his bag. But anyway – there was this painting. And then 4 small etchings, in a side-room upstairs. The fact they’re both being exhibited at the same time constitutes a Rembrandt “show” which I only know because just now, writing this summary several weeks later, I went to web site to check the name of the painting. So the wife and I saw

Just walking across the ground floor is all the proof you need of that. There’s a WWII bomber plane suspended from the ceiling alongside modern art installations, stuffed wildlife (including an elephant), renaissance sculptures, and tribal African masks. It’s a cool assortment of “pretty much everything you can throw in a room at once” which I admire as much for it’s willful display of outside-the-box presentation, as for the actual substance of the collection. And the substance is formidable; it may be eclectic… it’s also damned impressive.

At the Kelvingrove you’ll find artifacts, dioramas, interactive learning stations, touch-and-feel exhibits, stuffed animals, dinosaur and extinct-mammal skeletons, a handful of well-known international masterpieces (such as one of Salvador Dali’s crucifixion paintings)… and don’t forget those reasonably priced snacks.

One of the coolest things about this museum, and which my wife noticed and brought up as we were leaving, was the way they wrote the plaques and cards which accompany the works. They didn’t follow the standard, stale, museum style: name of the work, name of the artist, the year it was made, and then maybe (if you’re lucky) one or two sentences to put the work in context. Here, all of the plaques take a conversational, layman’s tone and approach; and each contain some tidbit to give you context to the thing you’re looking at; be it a painting by Corot or an elephant corpse. And always the tone is a conversational one rather than a scholarly one. The information is imparted with a friendly tone and not a stern one and you’re reminded that the collection is meant to be enjoyed by families and the public at large, and not just an educated class. It’s a very cool touch.

Speaking of educational signage… I was very pleased to stumble upon a bit that explained something I’ve been wondering about for a decade. Going back to my time as a night watchman at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, when I noticed several of the Northern masters would paint on copper plates. I wondered, “Why did they choose to paint of copper?” Those paintings tended to be ‘conspicuously special’ in some way. For instance there are some amazing collaborations between Rubens and Brueghel at The Met, painted on bronze plates. They beg attention simply because they’re collaborations by such well known masters.

Add to that the rather uncommon choice of bronze instead of panel as a support, and you naturally wonder: “Why?” I asked other guards, who in turn asked still other guards (a few of the guards have legendary and massive knowledge about the artists whose work they’ve watched for decades); and they asked some of the docents… and I consulted exhibition catalogs and guides in my spare time; but other than apparently some Northern artists having had a preference for it, I never really got a straight answer.

So when I randomly came across this sign, at this museum… accompanying another Brueghel painting on copper… I found it to be awesome. A kiss from fate. Most people probably won’t find it quite so interesting… but it’s a great example of how conversational signage can make a big difference in the average museum-goers enjoyment of the collection.

Summarizing our visit to the Kelvingrove doesn’t seem right without mentioning the large collection of dead animals. They’re got a veritable zoo of death going on. I’m not particularly into studying taxidermy or the skeletons of extinct, giant, mammals… but do admit the stuff is pretty cool to look at. And there’s lots of it to look at here.

I kind of feel they’re more frank about death and “scary” thinks like skulls and skeletons in the UK than they are in the US… I can’t imagine American parents feeling alright with their toddlers surrounded by quite so much death on an otherwise sunny/bright and educational museum visit. But maybe I’m just bringing a foreign point of view to this and off. I definitely liked it. Would recommend it as something to see in Glasgow. And definitely try the café… you won’t regret the prices!

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