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Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum has held a special place in the hearts of generations of Glaswegians. A world class museum in a truly magnificent building, bringing an amazing range of art, history and nature to life. First opened in 1901, Kelvingrove closed its doors to visitors in 2003, and decanted all its contents to temporary accommodation elsewhere in Glasgow as part of a £27.9m project to return the museum to an "as good as new" state. The Kelvingrove that re-opened to the public in 2006 is stunning: well worth making a special trip to Glasgow, or even to Scotland, to see. And it is not just "as good as new": it is better, offering more display space than ever before and, for the first time, being fully accessible to wheelchair users. Admission is free for all.
Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum lies in Kelvingrove Park overlooking Argyle Street. This places it close to Glasgow University, half a mile north of the River Clyde and the SECC, and a mile and a half west of Queen Street Station and Glasgow city centre. Parking is available on the Kelvingrove Park side of the museum: with more off the opposite side of Argyle Street near Kelvin Hall.
The museum's alignment is approximately north west to south east. The south west side faces Argyle Street, making this by far the best known view of the museum: it is also the best lit by the sun and the most photographed.
From this side Kelvingrove is a remarkably splendid building, and it comes as a surprise to visitors to discover that the side facing into Kelvingrove Park is actually the front of the museum and is even grander. This has given rise to an enduring piece of Glaswegian urban mythology, that Kelvingrove was accidentally built back to front and that, when it was complete, the architect was so disappointed he jumped to his death from one of the building's towers. The truth is that Kelvingrove was always intended to face into the park whose name it shares.
The "new" Kelvingrove that opened its doors in 2006 did away with internal partitions that over the decades had slowly cut the sightlines through an interior that, though large, is surprisingly simple in layout. It also opened up what had previously been storage cellars (and dug out more) to provide lower ground floor galleries for temporary exhibitions, an education wing, a shop, and a new lower ground floor entrance area.
Another major change involved cleaning all the interior stonework. Kelvingrove's exterior was made of red sandstone from the Lochabriggs Quarry near Dumfries (like much else that was built in Glasgow in the late 1800s) and the interior used a much lighter coloured sandstone from Giffnock, to the south of Glasgow. The exterior had been cleaned of its soot and grime in the 1980s, but the interior stone remained a dark and unattractive grey that, coupled with tatty and ancient display cases, gave Kelvingrove a distinctly second-hand feel. The interior stone was cleaned by being coated with chemically-treated latex. When this set, it was peeled off, bringing a century of grime with it. The results are amazing.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the huge centre hall of the museum. This towering space measures 125ft long by 56ft wide, not including the galleries and promenades that surround it at ground and first floor level. Today this houses the reception desk, a coffee shop, and the grand organ: and for the first time in a century you can see how light and airy it was intended to be.
The other key features of the internal layout of the museum are the east and west courts. These extend to either side of the centre hall and also extend up to roof level. The side courts are surrounded on three sides by display galleries at both ground and first floor level, and a broad arcaded walkway extends all the way around the end courts and centre hall at first floor level.
Access from the ground floor level to the first floor level is via grand staircases at the outer ends of the side courts, or via a number of other staircases. Before its renovation, Kelvingrove used the ground floor as a museum and the first floor as an art gallery. Coupled with a more confusing and fragmented layout than you find today, one effect was that fewer than 30% of visitors ever went up to the first floor level.
The "new" Kelvingrove's response to this, as well as returning to a less fragmented layout that means the stairs are obvious and easy to get to, has been to remove the old thematic division between first and ground floors. Instead, each of the two main floors is half dedicated to "life" and half to "expression". Individual galleries are themed, and within each theme exhibits are set in context.
One result of all the changes has been to allow the number of exhibits on view to increase significantly, from 4,000 before the renovation to 8,000 since. Themes like "Creatures of the Past" allows for the exhibition of mounted animals that once lived in Scotland, but no longer do so, like wolves, bears and wild boar. Meanwhile, the "Conflict and Consequences" theme includes Kelvingrove's remarkable collection of Scottish armour.
Themes on the arts or "expression" side range from the obvious "French Art" including some superb impressionist paintings through "Looking at Art" to "Mackintosh and the Glasgow Style." Obvious highlights include Salvador Dali's Christ of St John of the Cross and... well, we will each draw up our own list of favourites.
The "life" side of the themed approach gives ample scope for Kelvingrove's world renowned collections of stuffed or mounted fauna. These range from the superb butterflies all the way up the size scale to Sir Roger. Sir Roger was an elephant who spent the 1890s with a travelling circus before retiring to a zoo in Glasgow. In 1900 he developed a hormonal disorder that made him very aggressive, and as a result dangerous. He was therefore shot one morning while eating his breakfast. He was put on display at Kelvingrove in 1901 and has stayed here ever since. Too large to move during the renovation of the museum, he was simply left in place, protected within a wooden box.
Sir Roger lives in the West Court, as does Kelvingrove's second most famous resident, Spitfire LA198, which is suspended from the ceiling at first floor level. This aircraft flew with 602 (City of Glasgow) Auxiliary Squadron for two years after World War II before crash landing in 1949. It spent five years being beautifully restored at the Museum of Flight at East Fortune before taking its place of honour in an equally beautifully restored Kelvingrove.