23 Aug 2009

The storybook wonders of Kelvingrove

I had lived in Scotland for just a year when the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum opened its doors again after having been closed for several years for refurbishment. First opened in 1901, there was no doubt that it had been in desperate need of some tender loving care.
For three years the public had only been able to walk past the enormous red sandstone structure and wonder what was taking place inside. Hundreds of exhibits, from a huge Spitfire in the central court to intricate collections of fossils, were being planned and catalogued, while much-loved pieces of art were being restored to their former glory.
The build-up to the moment when the doors were again swung open included behind-the-scenes television programs in which obsessed curators were followed and interviewed, and talented lighting men climbed tall ladders and scaffolding to cast just the right shadows over ancient treasures.

The opening was also televised, and I remember the moment like it was something miraculous. It remains in my mind a testimony to human endeavour, to what can be accomplished when you combine talent, effort, care, and time. That night the cameras captured the looks on people’s faces as they stepped inside and took everything in, like it was the finest gift they could have imagined.

One of the best things about Britain: all national art galleries and museums are FREE. When you walk into Kelvingrove, this small fact is something that can stop you in your tracks. “Free. I could spend all day in here, gazing at some of the finest things in the world, and I don’t have to pay. All this grandeur, just for me…" 

A barrage of magical children’s books could be set inside this building’s deep belly of organized clutter. From the proud Victorian detail of the entrance to the hall of the hanging heads, it is like setting an egg beater loose in the imagination. If ever I would be allowed to spend a night in an empty museum, this would be the one I would choose.
Gorgeous pieces of sculpture are on show, including George Lawson’s Motherless. But many people will be drawn by the opportunity to see Salvador Dali’s original Christ of St John of the Cross. Last time I visited, it was hanging at the end of a long hall, ensuring the visitor had to approach it from a distance, the details coming slowly into view.

Leaving Kelvingrove, the way to the nearby park includes even more Victorian sculptures, including the one below of a weaver smiling tenderly to a child as she works.
Kelvingrove is Scotland’s most visited free attraction. Yet I often meet people who are visiting Scotland, who say they don’t have time to go to Glasgow. They head to Edinburgh’s gothic skyline and mark “Scotland” off their list of places to see.
Trust me - if you are travelling to Scotland, take a heavy pencil and carve time in your schedule to visit Kelvingrove. It is a gift that has been lovingly given to anyone who wants it.

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