The Burrell Collection

Lisa Reilly

Glasgow’s renowned Burrell Collection reopened 29 March 2022 following closure for nearly 6 years.  During this time John McAslan + Partners restored and modernised the 1983 landmark Barry Gasson site and building. In the words of the McAslan firm, the transformed building features ‘significant volumetric and layout interventions internally to create new learning spaces, open access storage, special exhibition areas, an updated cafe and retail facilities. New external landscaped terraces now seamlessly link the museum to the surrounding Pollok County Park.’((John McAslan + Partners website accessed 16-8-22)) The £68.25 million redevelopment was funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Glasgow City Council, the Scottish and UK governments as well as a host of trusts and private donors. The project also benefitted from consultations with over 15,000 local people.

The refurbishment has indeed transformed the building and site with many significant improvements.  Gallery space has increased by 35% and there are currently 25 displays across 24 galleries drawing from a collection of almost 9000 items.((Museum Associations journal by Simon Stephens accessed 16-8-22)) The building is considerably more sustainable environmentally due to its new heating and lighting systems, roof, cladding and glazing. The surrounding park was also part of the refurbishment as paths and roads have been improved. Benches, new signage, and vehicle barriers restricting access along the park’s main central route have also been installed. Unfortunately, the renewal did not extend to the railway station where there is no sign of the attractive banners found throughout Glasgow City Centre or any other display highlighting that you are near one of the world’s great art collections. Upon exiting the station, the signage to the Burrell initially disappears, leaving the train travelers who arrived with this writer to peer at their phones to find their way. The building is now better integrated into its landscape setting with a new entrance leading the visitor through large glass doors into a spacious, well-lit foyer.

Given the Burrell’s renowned collection of stained glass, its reopening and refurbishment will be of particular interest to Vidimus readers and indeed there is much to like about the renewed facility. Yet, the overall impression of the new Burrell is one of unevenness. Some of the simplest things, like label alignment are badly handled and, in some cases, the new video screens actually block the visitor’s view of the object under discussion (Fig. 1). While certain parts of the collection have benefitted from the use of new technologies and interpretations, the stained-glass collection for the most part, has not. For example, the experience of viewing Edgar Degas’ painting The Rehearsal (c1884) is enriched by a detailed video analysis which uses details and animation to encourage the visitor to examine the adjacent painting more closely with greater insight in its composition and subject matter. By comparison, the major installation of stained glass along the windows of the shop has very limited labels which do not align with the panels they purportedly describe. In addition, the panels are not numbered making it difficult in some cases to determine which label applies to which panels (Fig. 2).  In contrast to the detailed and sophisticated discussion of the Degas, these brief labels are perfunctory in the amount of information they provide and rather patronising in tone (Fig. 3).

Fig. 1 An interpretative video cabinet obscuring part of the fourteenth-century Bury casket. © Author

Fig. 2 The second-floor stained glass gallery. Captions are in blocks with no corresponding numbering of individual panels © Author

Fig. 3 An example of typical stained-glass captioning © Author

A new central stairway with stepped seating and a wall lined with a magnificent display of large scale medieval stained-glass panels now leads to the building’s lower floor which includes a temporary exhibition space (Fig. 4). Particularly appealing on this level is the display associated with the collection’s storage space. It features a glass wall allowing visitors to see the many objects not on display. Projected on this wall are a series of images and text explaining how the storage space works, information about the range and size of the collection, and talks by museum staff about object storage, conservation, and care (Fig. 5). It is a compelling display and on a recent visit, was highly popular particularly with younger patrons. Main floor galleries are largely thematic in organization with rarely shown treasures such as the Wagner Garden carpet, one of the earliest surviving Persian garden carpets in the world, now on long term display.

Fig. 4 The new central stair gallery space, displaying monumental windows to great effect. © Author.

Fig. 5 Glimpse into the museum stores, with informative projections about the reserve collections, their care and conservation. © Author.

The upper floor, previously not open to museum visitors, is now dedicated to galleries arranged by material and medium which discuss how different types of objects are made.  This maker space includes some very informative videos about production and care. One of the highlights of the Burrell, the tapestry collection, is greatly enhanced by an outstanding video featuring staff from the department discussing how tapestries are both produced and repaired as well as the tapestries themselves. This part of the collection is further supported by an exemplary academic catalogue by Elizabeth Cleland and Lorraine Karafel. By contrast, the display of stained glass included in the maker galleries has a sense of incompleteness about it.  The extra gallery space means more glass is on display including a display of enamel panels from secular settings (Fig. 6). No information about these fascinating objects accompanies them, however. The videos relating to the stained-glass part of the maker galleries, in contrast to the high-level tapestry example, are largely off the shelf commercial works which do not specifically reference the objects shown. The lack of information about the stained glass could easily remedied by consulting recent research undertaken by stained glass scholars and conservators. This includes post graduate work funded through the Burrell itself. Extensive new research on the Boppard Collection, part of which is housed at the Burrell as well as at the Schnütgen Museum and Metropolitan Museum of Art, is readily available, for example. Despite highlighting the Princess Cecily Panel from the Royal Window at Canterbury Cathedral in banners displayed throughout Glasgow city centre as well as in the Collection’s entrance hall photo opportunity and listing it as one of the collection’s top 30 highlights on its webpage, this important panel hangs in splendid isolation devoid of contextual or identification information (Fig. 7). A very rare and early example of a donor figure, identified through heraldry (that of Beatrix van Falkenburg, d.1277), is marooned at the end of a corridor also lacking accompanying information. Without supporting text, the visitor is left wondering about the significance and meaning of these striking works. Burrell himself, a shipping magnate who formed his collection specifically for the people of Glasgow, had an acute sense of the importance and significance of the works in his collection, which is effectively conveyed in many of the galleries of the newly refurbished museum but sadly not all.

Fig. 6 Enamel-painted domestic pieces, uncaptioned, on display in the ‘Making’ galleries.

Fig. 7 Princess Cecily from Canterbury Cathedral’s Royal Window of c.1482-87, one of the Burrell Collection’s highlights, displayed in isolation and without explanation. © Author.

Lisa Reilly is the Commonwealth Professor of Architectural History at the University of Virginia. She frequently teaches courses on museum interpretation and exhibition design. Currently she is preparing a CVMA volume on the York parish church of St. Michael le Belfrey with Professor. Mary B. Shepard.

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