Riverside Retrospective

Riverside MuseumRiverside Museum is architecturally striking with staggeringly complex engineering, but it’s the coherent relationship with the content – the world-class collection, intelligent interpretation and beautiful design – that puts Riverside into the museum world’s premier league.

The site, the architecture, engineering, landscaping, exhibition design and collection all work together, creating a must-see museum that reveals the city’s proud past and much-loved collections, but is also demonstrative of Glasgow’s successful transition from post-industrial decline to global cultural powerhouse, while also putting itself at the vanguard of the Clyde’s regeneration.

Inside and out, Riverside challenges traditional expectations of a transport museum. The displays within are multidisciplinary and story-focused, a radical approach that puts people into the heart of the displays and prioritises the visitor; a method of interpretation that was pioneered at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum during its recent refurbishment.

Using around 3000 objects from across the city’s collection, archive film, a vast number of photographs, and personal experiences and memories, the museum reveals the rich and varied stories of Glasgow’s great achievements and vibrant spirit; of technological breakthroughs and heartbreaking tragedies; of local heroes and global giants.

And as you’d expect in such a groundbreaking museum, many of these stories are delivered through audiovisual displays, hands-on interactives and digital touch-screens. Some of these touch-screens also give visitors the opportunity to offer feedback on the museum and influence future displays. This very democratic way of engaging with visitors will massively influence future redisplays at Riverside, another innovative approach made possible by the building’s inbuilt flexibility – a key part of the architect’s original brief.

The “story displays” at Riverside centre on one or two major objects and tell the stories of the people who used, witnessed, operated and made the objects on display. These displays, from design to delivery, have at their heart both the user (maker, driver, commuter, consumer, employee, etc) and the museum visitor. They vary widely in theme and subject: from life as a clippie to life on a clipper; from firing up a steam car to driving a steam locomotive; from enjoying a luxury cruise to putting out fires. Think riveting adventures rather than rivets (though Riverside does have, as you’d expect, a story on shipbuilding that displays a variety of different types of rivets!).

Even when you visit – and you really must – and you wander, and wonder, beneath the dramatic self-supporting roof (2500 tonnes of steel held up by engineers’ complex calculations rather than intrusive columns), around displays of motorbikes and skateboards, locomotives and blunderbusses, you’ll only get a glimpse of the scale of the project. That it was achieved in under a decade, on time and on budget, is a minor miracle.

The project itself stretches back almost a decade to 2002 when Project Director Lawrence Fitzgerald was seconded from the Kelvingrove New Century Project (itself a massive success) to head up the project to build a new Museum of Transport in Glasgow.

In 2004, architect Zaha Hadid, engineers Buro Happold and exhibition designers Event Communications were appointed after a thorough tender process. The list of contractors who have come on board since then spans an impressive range of disciplines and expertise, from the building contractors BAM to Glasgow software firm 55 who designed the AV and digital displays, from special mount-makers Tony Jones who made the beautiful ship model displays to a cohort of sound, lighting, editorial and conservation consultants. The breadth of knowledge employed at Riverside has ensured that every part of the museum, from the doors to the public slipway, from accessible viewing platforms to the fontsize on the text panels has been developed thoughtfully, coherently and with the visitors’ needs a priority.

Even before 2002, there had been calls for a dedicated museum of transport that would tell the story of Glasgow’s tremendous influence upon the world in the context of the River Clyde. For many, however, the poor environmental conditions at Kelvin Hall (the home of the Museum of Transport from 1988 to 2010) were reason enough. Although hugely popular, MoT was never meant to be a permanent home for the city’s transport treasures, and fluctuating temperatures, humidity and damp caused problems to many of the 1500 objects on display and to the hundreds of thousands of objects kept in stores. Engines rusted and fragile ship models warped. At Riverside, the objects have been given a much-needed environmentally friendly and stable home, but not before extensive conservation work was carried out.

Riverside’s team of conservators included experts from across a range of disciplines (textiles, transport, natural history, paintings and frames), who spent more than 38,000 hours meticulously conserving the objects, from steam locomotives to toy cars, paintings to ship models. Conservators also had to tackle a severe pest infestation: clothes moths, or rather their larvae, were slowly eating away the soft furnishings of the vehicles and other vulnerable objects.

As conservators worked on the objects, the curatorial team, aided by a large number of volunteers, spent years researching and developing the content for Riverside’s 150 story displays, each one of which has been tailored to one of the museum’s target audiences: families, schools, under-fives, teens and sensory-impaired; and spanning themes such as Getting There, Disasters and Crashes, Made In Scotland and the River Clyde.

Archive film, cartoons, animation, newspaper quotes, postcards, holiday snaps, paintings, diary extracts and interviews are just some of the different mediums used in the story displays at Riverside. It’s a substantial body of work. The static text and graphic panels alone comprise more than 50,000 words; 600 images; 120 personal testimonies; 300 named individuals; and almost 100 literary quotes. And that’s not counting the digital displays: some 130 or so audiovisual screens (90 of which are touch-screens) with a further 2500 images (and counting), dozens of films, archive and newly commissioned, and almost 100 eyewitness testimonies. The final word count is still being tallied …

And nor are the displays themselves all static. Expect to see skateboarders performing; vintage dresses twirling; model ships sailing; a speedway motorbike cornering; and a rowing boat rocking.

For younger visitors, Riverside offers six “e-storybooks”, each telling a story using touch-screen technology in a fun and dynamic way – a bit like a moving, and noisy, picture book. For those wanting a hands-on experience, Riverside has 24 interactive exhibits, ranging from mechanical how- it-works demonstrations to PC-based games.

Access, particularly for wheelchair-users and children, has been improved dramatically. Visitors will be able to board two subway cars, three trams, four locomotive footplates, one train carriage and one bus. As they meander down the museum’s three re-created streets (spanning 1895–1980), they will be able to enter Le Rendezvous café, the Mitre bar, a 1960s garage, pawnshops, dress shops, a toy shop and subway stations.

As well as the re-created streets, there are a number of other eye-popping displays, such as a hanging bike velodrome and a wall of cars. The latter, appropriately enough, is a big statement about how the museum views transport. But there are “proper” artworks here too, by Bridget Riley, Linda Kitson, JS Lowry, Stanley Spencer and Muirhead Bone to name but a few. And then there are the exquisite ship models, themselves beautiful works of art and irreplaceable.

Riverside is so much more than a museum, awe-inspiring as that is in itself. The Tall Ship Glenlee – the last Clyde-built sailing vessels afloat in the UK – is moored outside, creating a unique and dramatic visitor attraction that is forecast to attract 800,000 per year, though some feel that’s a conservative estimate.

Many of these visitors will surely come via the new cross-river ferry, which will start to coincide with the museum’s opening day on June 21st, and hopefully attract many of Riverside’s visitors across to Govan, which is itself undergoing a dramatic regeneration.

Landscaping works around the site have turned the area into a harmonious and attractive space, with public access to the river and cleverly designed areas for educational workshops and visitors to the café. North of the museum is an events plaza capable of hosting events for up to 8,000 people, adding another, valuable location to the city’s portfolio of events venues.

In today’s tough economic climate, some may balk at the £74 million cost, which was provided by Glasgow City Council (£47.6m), Heritage Lottery Fund (£21.6m) and the Riverside Museum Appeal (£5m), and committed during easier financial times. But Glasgow has proved again and again that investment in its culture and heritage pays off. Personally, I think £74m is a bargain.

The Riverside Museum project is a vital part of the flagship Glasgow Harbour development – itself part of the multi-billion-pound regeneration of the Clyde waterfront – and it has been the catalyst for vastly improved infrastructure to the area. Riverside Museum and The Tall Ship Glenlee is expected to attract hundreds of thousands of people annually to a site that was once home to bonded warehouses, and part-derelict. For too long, the Clyde’s been seen as an obstacle, a painful scar that reminded Glaswegians of a greater, better time, when the city built Big Things and exported them all over the world. Riverside won’t bring those days back, but it tells that story (among many others), and by doing so in this forward-looking, groundbreaking way, it gives the city something to be hugely proud of, and brings the term Clyde-built into the modern world.

A version of this was published by Museums and Heritage Magazine.

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