The ancestral home to the Maxwell family for over 700 years, the Old Pollok estate was gifted to the City of Glasgow in 1966 and has remained a public park ever since.
Nestled inside this historic park is a building that seems out of place with its surroundings. Driving up to the main car park, the Burrell Collection peeks out at you from a row of trees. The modesty of such a contemporarily beautiful listed building characterises the museum housing artefacts from 4,000 years of human history.
Sir William Burrell was a shipping magnate who inherited his father’s business along with his brother. They had a modest beginning, being born in a three-room tenement in Glasgow, the Burrell’s had to scrape to get by, something that William never forgot.
William was always much more interested in art than the family business, selling it off in 1916 to pursue his eclectic collection. His first purchase was at the age of 14, a portrait of a lady he successfully bid on for a few shillings but later had to resell at a loss because he could not afford a frame. This did not deter him and he continued his collecting into his 90s, amassing a collection of over 9,000 pieces spanning many different civilisations.
This collection is what is housed in the modern museum in Pollok Park and due for refurbishment. The museum was opened by the Queen in 1983 and contains the largest single collection donated to a city in the entire world.
Although full of beautiful paintings, ceramics and artefacts from all over the Earth, the museum has only been able to show about 20% of the full collection since opening due to the risk of damage from light and the complex roof letting in water. The building was closed in October of 2016 and is due to reopen in 2020 following extensive refurbishments that will add another two floors and open the basement store areas to allow up to 90% of the 9,000 items to be shown to the public.
The ambitious redevelopment is likely to cost up to £66m with at least half promised by Glasgow City Council and the rest made up of lottery funding and private donors. Depute Leader of the council and Chair of Glasgow Life, which runs the city’s museums, Archie Graham has an interest in preserving the collection.
He said: “the building is over 30 years old now and it was designed at a time when the climate was different to what it is now. We’ve had particular problems with the roof and the design of the roof, so that will need to be taken off and the new roof will need to be able to withstand the rigours of the modern climate in the west of Scotland.”
The new roof will use high performance glazing that was not available in the 80s to ensure no water damage can occur and also make the museum more energy efficient. The refurbishment is part of a larger plan to make the park more accessible to the public.
Councillor Graham said: “There’s a major strategic plan that will include accessible transport. It’s difficult to get to the Burrell if you are elderly or infirm at the moment by public transport. Yes there’s a train station nearby but it’s a fair walk to the museum if you are elderly or in a wheelchair.”
While the building is closed, the collection looks set to still be shown at Glasgow museums with Councillor Graham telling me that some of the more religious items may be on display at the St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art. The collection also has a place at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, behind the organ, where visitors can see Sir William’s collection of lesser known artist, Joseph Crawhall.
The space at Kelvingrove will rotate out different sections of the extensive collection. Duncan Dornan, Head of Museums and Collections at Glasgow Life, hopes people will come along to the exhibitions to have their say on the new collection.
He said: “The intention is to use the space at Kelvingrove to prototype some of the approaches to interpretation we would like to develop in the new museum. This will be a chance to try them out with an audience and get people’s reaction and refine what we do.”
Glasgow’s museums bring in 3.4 million people every year and Glasgow Life hopes to improve that number by working with the public to give them the museum experience that they want.
The collection will not only be shown at local museums, it is likely to take a tour of the world before returning home in 2020.
Duncan Dornan said: “We’ve been overwhelmed by enquiries about Burrell objects since we announced that we would be able to lend it internationally, so we’re just pinning down exact destinations for those now and we’re optimistic about making some exciting announcements within the coming months.
“I think there will be a number of opportunities in different locations across the world at the same time, such is the demand and the breadth of the collection so it is possible to do that. Specialist areas might pop up in one country while some others are somewhere else.”
Sir William Burrell also had a number of stipulations for the collection, donated to the city in 1944.
Mr Dornan said: “He was concerned about pollution and specified that it wasn’t to be housed in the city centre, which is why it took so long to find a location. Pollok Park offered the ideal opportunity for that, the green and clean environment to locate the collection.
“It had to be displayed in a domestic setting but that’s really very difficult to know quite what Burrell had in mind when he wrote that down.”
Burrell never wrote an autobiography so it is difficult for museum staff to figure out what he meant by a “domestic setting”. Duncan and others believe it to mean that the collection is to be displayed in a home environment which is the reason for the home displays, recreated from how they were in Hutton Castle in the Scottish Borders, Burrell’s home from 1916 until his death in 1958.
Burrell’s collection was personalised to his own particular tastes and pieces were often chosen to furnish Hutton Castle. He never lost his thrifty ways, however, buying medieval archways, which make up most of the museum’s doorways, from William Randolph Hearst – the American newspaper publisher.
Duncan said: “Burrell didn’t acquire those when they first came on the market, he waited until Hearst had gone bust and was selling them off. He stepped in and bought them at a competitive price. It is said that he bought them for less than Hearst paid to insure them.”
The basement stores, not previously open to the public, will consider the mindset of a collector like Burrell. They will be opened to show the evolution of his collection as his understanding and tastes grew over the years.
The enduring legacy of the Burrell Collection as a building is that of the juxtaposition of historical items in the setting of a thoroughly modern building.
Mr Dornan said: “One of the major constraints on exhibitions at the Burrell has been the impact of light and humidity, temperature and moisture on the objects which are being displayed. By using modern technology we get a building which is much more consistent.
“We had displays feeling very static over long periods of time, people will be able to see an evolution of what is being displayed and the more sensitive objects will have an opportunity to come out of the stores.
“The new technology lets us open up the potential to change and rejuvenate the Burrell content quite rapidly, which people will be able to appreciate and enjoy much more easily.”