The Burrell Collection’s second chance to capture the hearts of Glasgow
This article is taken from the April 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
When the Burrell Collection opened in a park just south of Glasgow on 21 October 1983, it made a big impact. Here was a collection of a private individual equivalent in its scope to some of the great collections in the United States — not quite at the level of the Frick Collection or the Morgan Library, but all of it of the highest quality: tapestries equal to those of the V&A; Persian carpets; eighteenth-century paintings; some antiquities; and a wonderfully wide-ranging collection of work by Degas, which was recently shown in an exhibition at the National Gallery.
Sir William Burrell had donated his collection to Glasgow City Council in March 1944, with stringent conditions as to how, and most especially where, it was to be displayed. It had to be not less than sixteen miles from the Royal Exchange in Glasgow in order to avoid environmental pollution and within four miles of Killearn in Stirlingshire.
He died in 1958, and it was only in 1966 that it was agreed by Burrell’s trustees that the collection could be shown in a new building in the grounds of Pollok House, only a couple of miles from the city centre.
An architectural competition was held in two stages, the first advertised in September 1970 and assessed a year later, the second completed in March 1972, a strange time in terms of architecture when modernism was running out of steam and there was a sense of uncertainty about the appropriate architectural language for a new museum.
What they designed was already unfashionable by the time it opened
Plenty of big-name architects entered the competition, including Basil Spence, the most famous Scottish architect of the time, and Denys Lasdun, who came second, but the first stage of the competition was won by Barry Gasson, a lecturer in the School of Architecture at Cambridge University, who was working under the influence of Colin St John Wilson, later architect of the British Library, and Lionel March, who was obsessed about the mathematics of design. They were establishing an alternative tradition of modernism — more interested in the materials of construction, less brutal in its impact than much recent work, no concrete, more Scandinavian and civic in its ethos.
After winning the first stages of the competition, Gasson joined forces with John Meunier and Brit Andresen, two colleagues in the department, who worked with him until Meunier went off to teach in Cincinnati and Andresen in Brisbane, leaving Gasson to finish it and get most of the credit when it opened.
What they designed was already unfashionable by the time it opened in 1984 — low-key, single-storey, anti-monumental, with acres of glass, more like a North American campus museum than Louisiana in Denmark to which it is invariably compared (Gasson had worked for two years in the office of Philip Johnson in the mid-1960s, not long after Johnson had designed the gallery of pre-Columbian art at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington and when he was working on the Lincoln Center).
In 1983, the first year that the Burrell Collection opened, it had over a million visitors, excited by the opportunity to see such a great collection and the imaginative way it was displayed. But visitors gradually dwindled. For some reason, not entirely clear, it was much less loved than its museum equivalents like the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon.
The building was poorly maintained. Its atmosphere was a touch forbidding with a strongly ecclesiastical arched entrance leading to a long corridor which gradually got cluttered with retail. The café was run by Glasgow corporate services.
The people of Glasgow did not take the millionaire taste to heart
The people of Glasgow did not take the millionaire taste of a pre-war shipping baron to its heart, unlike the collections of Kelvingrove which have always been hugely popular. They didn’t have a programme of special exhibitions, and Burrell had scarcely collected any art after Degas. By the time the museum closed for refurbishment in 2016, visitor numbers had dropped to 150,000.
After a master planning exercise undertaken by a Scottish architect, John McAslan, there was a further competition. This was won by Gardiner & Theobald, a project management firm, in conjunction with McAslan, and a team of gallery designers, Event.
This refurbishment has cost £68 million. It involved the renovation of all the glass, re-doing all the services, installing an extra lift, opening-up a new front entrance and converting an old, unused lecture theatre in the centre of the building into a successful public space where people can sit casually with their coffee and watch films. The result is many more galleries, in the basement and upstairs and on the main floor.
The original architects are said to have been unhappy about the plans for its renovation, which changes the experience of the museum from a carefully articulated route, organised round key works in the collection, to a much more unplanned, haphazard sense of exploration, with more flexibility in the way the collection is displayed.
In so far as I was able to judge from seeing the new museum before the works had been fully installed, it looked to me to have been reconfigured beautifully, with much more to see, all beautifully displayed. The immense amount of natural daylight and the quality of materials of the original building has worn well. The collection is so rich. This time round, with its defects corrected and the sunlight pouring in, a million people should visit again.
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