Living back in Glasgow again means I can immerse myself in museum collections I’ve known all my life, but haven’t seen for a while. There is something wonderfully comforting and familiar about it, a bit like seeing old friends. My visit to the Burrell is timely, as it is about to close ahead of a major re-development. It is tantalising to think that on completion of the new, improved Burrell, access to another 70% of the collection will be possible. Heaven knows what treasures await!
I was at school nearby when The Burrell Collection opened in 1983 and I can readily tap into the memory of the excitement surrounding the unveiling of the beautifully designed building containing Sir William Burrell’s eclectic collection. It was in the same year as the city’s re-branding – the slogan ‘Glasgow’s Miles Better’ was everywhere and Orange Juice were in the charts…Glasgow was beginning to re-define itself as a cultural centre and it felt like anything was possible… I was thirteen at the time.
Its only in retrospect that I realise that The Burrell was fundamental in forming my deep interest and fascination with all museum collections. It was there that I saw priceless medieval tapestries and Chinese celadon porcelain for the first time [how could something so ancient look so modern?]. Dazzlingly colourful stained glass windows from fifteenth century France and the Jacobean needlework and lace collections also made a lasting impression. As would be art students, our art teacher encouraged us to get out of the class room and see real live art in the flesh and naturally we often found ourselves at The Burrell.
Thirty three years later, my conservators’ sensibilities alight on features of the building that I was not directly conscience of before: the beautiful stone display cases and the flow and control of natural light – full direct sunlight to best display the stained glass, ambient natural light in the ancient civilisation galleries and controlled lower level lighting to display the carpets, tapestries, paintings etc. To be able to see Rodin bronzes and ancient stone sculpture, illuminated purely by natural light, through full length windows, with the woodland beyond is a sublime experience.
An abiding joy for me is the way in which ancient gateways and windows have been incorporated into the building. These portals form the soul of The Burrell Collection because rather that being reduced to objects, they still perform their original function, leading us into and around the museum, offering glimpses of treasures in adjoining rooms and the verdant Pollok Park outside. I’ve only recently discovered that some, if not all, of these historic portals were acquired by Sir William from the collection of the American news baron and serial collector William Randolph Hearst. Ever the shrewd business man and with the building of his museum in mind, Sir William secured a great deal from the bankrupt Hearst in the 1940/50’s.
I have no doubt that these wonderful objects will remain in the re-modelled galleries but I wonder whether another fundemental, original feature will return? Namely, the wonderfully comfortable ‘Spanish Chairs’ by Borge Morgensen. These were, Mackintosh aside, the very first designer chairs I ever saw and certainly ever sat in!
I have enquired as to whether I might go on a list to buy one, in the event that they are being replaced [I am by no means the first to have asked] but apparently they will be making a reapearance. I look forward to it!