Many people will be looking forward to visiting The Burrell Collection again, after its five-year long closure and the major renewal project which has just been completed. ‘The Burrell’ has re-opened this week, on 29th March 2022.
The building was first opened in 1983, built to a competition-winning design by Architects Barry Gasson, John Meunier and Britt Andresen. The Burrell received many awards and quickly became a favourite and beloved place for the people of Glasgow. It is one of the best, and most architecturally significant cultural buildings of the late twentieth century in Scotland.
So, what is new in the re-opened building?
There are some elements of the renewal that the visiting public may not consciously see: there is a much improved building envelope and building services which achieve leading environmental standards. This upgrading has been skilfully achieved by renewal Architects John McAslan and Partners without altering the appearance of the Grade A-listed building’s exterior.
Alongside the very necessary building fabric improvements, the display of the collection has been comprehensively re-evaluated and now redisplayed in substantially renewed gallery spaces. Consultation with the public has played a significant part in planning what to show.
There is a new main entrance, entered on the long glazed south elevation. The main approach is along a new paved precinct, set along the east side of the projecting sandstone wing of the building. (On the gable end of this wing is the gothic stone arched doorway where previously you would have entered, and is still also to be accessible).
The new entrance location positions the arriving visitor more towards the centre of the building than before. Directly behind the new main entrance foyer is the grand interior ’courtyard’, bounded by its Dumfriesshire sandstone walls, with the ancient Italian marble Warwick Vase at its centre, remaining much as it was before closure.
From the Warwick Vase the visitor can choose to move directly into a new space introducing the story of the collectors Sir William and Lady Constance Burrell and their family, showcasing examples of the areas of their collecting, and this has Auguste Rodin’s sculpture The Thinker as its centrepiece. In this introduction Sir William and his family are brought to life in re-enacted short film scenes, set in 1910, moving around their Glasgow places of significance: their home at Great Western Terrace, the Shipyard, Provand’s Lordship, the City of Glasgow and the Art Dealers’ galleries. These short digital presentations are successful in presenting the Burrell Family to the viewer in an engaging way.
From here onwards there are new ways to circulate in the building: moving towards the centre of the building from the space introducing the Burrell Family you reach the new ‘central hub’, a central circulation and stair and lift hall space, with wide terraced concrete seating accessed from the stair.
At the central hub you can choose to step down to the lower ground floor or up to the first floor. A wide digital display screen occupies the whole wall of the lower floor in front of the terraced seating. This displays panoramic imagery of The Burrell building in the context of the surrounding Country Park, with some surprise animated additions. To one side on the lower floor are further screen displays giving an overview of the collection. At high level, one wall of the central stair space displays a number of pieces of the stained glass collection. The ceiling is modelled with a grid reminiscent of a beamed ceiling, with illumination emulating skylighting in its recessed areas.
The central hub space is the most significant architectural intervention in the building and it is understated in its materials and detailing, respectful to the original architecture surrounding it on all sides.
Alternatively, it is still possible to start your journey through the ground floor galleries at the historic Hornby Portal doorway to the north gallery, entering from the Warwick Vase hall. It is possible to maintain a perimeter walk continuously around the edge of the building, or to turn inwards from the perimeter to view some of the many galleries that connect each side of the building by cross routes.
In the organisation of the exhibition floors: the three floor levels now have the titles The Collection Stores (the lower ground floor), Lives of the Collection (ground floor) and Makers of the Collection’ (first floor). These descriptions point towards the stated aims of increasing understanding of the collection.
Staying on the ground floor, behind the central hub, in the middle of the building there are the re-purposed double-height Central Galleries, distinctive with their dark blue coloured walls. From here you can move out through the cross galleries to reach the calming long North Gallery on the edge of the woodland, and then the East and South East Galleries.
Old favourites can be seen again: paintings by Degas, Cezanne, Manet and Peploe, Rodin’s sculpture, Egyptian artefacts, Chinese ceramics from many centuries ago, extraordinary tapestries and carpets, armour, and the stained glass collection, the list is long.
Notably, the Scottish Colourist Samuel J Peploe’s Pink Roses is set on a wall in the Central Galleries where digitally projected cascading flowers based on pieces from the collection animate the blue wall behind. This is quite mesmerising.
Digital presentations provide new ways of interpretation; the galleries have been almost entirely re-presented, and alongside the artefacts there are more than 70 new digital and interactive displays presenting visuals, commentaries and texts that enhance understanding of the objects, at various levels of detail to suit the age and interests of the viewer. Digital technology has provided new opportunities and these have been well taken. In their physical design the digital displays are very well integrated into the galleries, they are not intrusive within the spaces at all. It will be quite natural particularly for young visitors to go to the screens, to be entertained and absorb new information.
On the first floor, in Makers of the Collection, the re-shaping of the displays is significant and will enhance understanding of the crafts, the materials, skills and making methods of the various categories of objects in the collection. There is a series of ‘Makers Galleries’ illustrating different crafts: metal work, carpentry, masonry, pottery, textiles and printmaking. Digital displays show modern day craftspeople at work and describing their work. Alongside the makers’ processes, each space has many items from that category of the collection to explore. There are tools and pieces of carpentry and stone work set at a level that children can touch and explore.
It is very quickly evident that there is much more to see on display than previously, existing spaces have been used more effectively. The Museum’s gallery space is said to be 35% bigger. The scope of the galleries is such that a detailed look at just a few of them may take some time, with the layers of information available.
The North Gallery, running the full length of the north edge of the building, has been kept as it has always been: it is still wonderful, light and calm: the double-height glass wall running its full length sits against the edge of the woodland outside. Here there is space to consider pieces from all sides, and with some of the exhibits, to enjoy the new tactile 3-dimensional replicas of elements of the objects fixed to the outside of their cases. Notably the north galleries do not have digital displays, allowing a quieter enjoyment and contemplation of objects. There are also some very comfortable new bespoke seats placed to enjoy the objects from. Familiar favourites the Meditating Luohan life-size figure from the Ming Dynasty and Roof tile, in the form of a lion are here as always.
The visual impact of that first glimpse of the edge of the woodland outside the long north gallery glass wall is always there, and this is still my favourite aspect of this wonderful building.
Also accessed from the North Gallery is the one remaining enclosed room (from the previous three) which incorporates furnishings from Hutton Castle, home of the Burrells from the 1920s. This now also has digital presentations to enhance interpretation and screen-based games for young children.
In the East Galleries, one is dedicated to the long-term display of the early 17th century Wagner Garden carpet made in Iran. Again there are new methods of presentation surrounding it to enhance its interpretation.
Along the South Galleries – as before, many pieces of the magnificent stained glass collection are shown against the fully glazed south elevation. The new extensive museum shop is set just behind these galleries.
On the lower ground floor is the re-modelled restaurant, which looks very appealing, and an additional new coffee shop, with a new entrance/ exit leading to new outdoor seating on the south front.
The Collection Stores, which it will be possible for the public to visit, and Special Exhibition and Events Space are also on the lower ground floor.
The building still inspires and has an atmosphere all of its own. The best of the Burrell as it was before has been retained and protected, and is enhanced by the substantially new presentation of the collection, including the contribution of the digital displays. There is something here for all ages and at all levels of interest. It will invite many re-visits to discover a little more each time.
The Burrell will surely quickly re-establish itself as an essential part of Glasgow’s cultural life, and attract many new visitors from home and abroad.
The Bloomberg Connects app will allow visitors to access a free digital guide providing further information about key objects and displays, while visiting the Burrell Collection or from home.
Admission is free.
With grateful thanks to Gordon Reid for this review.