SESSION 2: The Burrell Renaissance: Unpicking a Collection and its Building

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The Burrell Renaissance takes place on the Pollok Country Park estate in Glasgow, Scotland. In this presentation Helen Hughes and Stephanie de Roemer unpick the history of this collection and its beautiful surroundings. Together they explore the challenges faced by the team of trustees in navigating the housing facilities and object relocation with the collector’s intent in mind, and conclude by touching upon contemporary decisions being made in recognition of a policy that places people and the visitor experience at the fore.

In this blogpost I present a summary of the talk, sectioned into three parts. Part one presents an overview of the nature of the collection amassed by Sir William Burrell, whilst part two takes us on a historical overview of issues facing the collection, from the opening of the museum in 1983 through to the present day. Finally, a discussion of the Q&A is provided, the focus predominantly being on the importance of visitor engagement and public participation.

Stephanie de Roemer: Sir William Burrell and the nature of his collection :  

Stephanie de Roemer begins by introducing us to Sir William Burrell, whose entrepreneurial flair encouraged an early retirement in his mid-40’s and welcomely fanned into being a life devoted to collecting art. This passion also fed his enthusiasm for historic interiors and furnishings so much so that, alongside acquiring roughly 8, 000 pieces of art, Burrell also took great care in redesigning the interiors of his family homes. For example, renowned architect/designer Robert Lorimer was employed to undertake the remodelling of the Burrell’s family home at 8 Great Western Terrace, Glasgow. (The house had in fact been designed by eminent mid 19th-century Scottish neo-Grecian architect and architectural theorist Alexander “the Greek” Thomson, a pioneer in sustainable building.)

In 1916, Burrell went on to purchase Hutton Castle, which overlooks the Whiteladder Water in the Scottish Borders. In this asymmetrical, castellated mansion his compendium of art and artefacts accumulated into the collection we know and love today. In her talk de Roemer reflects a little on the aesthetics of imagined interiors, alluding to Burrell’s appreciation for the ethos of William Morris as advocated by the influential figure and contract architect/antiquarian Murray Adams-Acton. I particularly enjoyed de Roemer’s description of Burrell’s creative processes and can imagine the collector excitedly curating his amassment of medieval tapestries, modern sculptures and a host of other artefacts in the various large, open spaces of his Hutton Castle home. Several articles in Burrell’s varied and extensive collection were also exhibited at Kelvingrove art galleries and museums, and perhaps it was these opportunities for public engagement and accessibility that encouraged Sir William Burrell to gift his entire collection to the city of Glasgow in 1944.

Under specific conditions outlined in the memorandum of agreement, and further cemented in Burrell’s will and testament, the rehousing process was understandably a complicated one that took over two decades to solve. Somewhat fortuitously, the search for the perfect building ended when Mrs. M. Maxwell MacDonald gifted Pollok house and its 360 acres of estate to the city of Glasgow in 1967. The environment and type/function of the building was very well suited to the specifications outlined by Sir William Burrell regarding the nature of his collection and its subsequent space. The first part of the presentation then concluded with a summary of the material and abstract considerations behind the building’s careful integration strategy, guided by the winning designs of architects Barry Gasson and John Meunier (see image 1).

Helen Hughes: the challenges faced from the opening to the present day:

At 06:37 minutes in, our second speaker Helen Hughes initiated Part Two of the presentation. She began by addressing the apparent beauty of the Museum in its setting at Pollok Park (see image 2). Despite its stern façade, nature appears to take the upper hand in controlling what goes on at the museum. According to Hughes the orientation of galleries, access routes and mezzanines in relation to the sun influenced many of the decisions made during the Burrell Renaissance, for example the problematic juxtaposition of the Islamic carpets with the stained-glass windows in the south galleries.  

Although a wonderful dialogue existed in the sunlit mix of cultures and religions in the space, this only highlighted the issue of light damage. After attempting to mitigate the risk by installing blinds the trustees agreed that an insufficient reduction of UV in the space meant the objects most affected had to be relocated. Difficulties regarding location also arose in the movement of Burrell’s paintings to the mezzanine study areas. Even with the increased signage, the shift complicated visitors, who were understandably disorientated by the lack of clarity around changing gallery spaces. It is clear that experiences such as these helped to inform the Burrell Collection of the gap between the museum’s platform for public engagement and the visitors themselves.

The presentation concluded with a discussion of the collection’s push to integrate visitors collaboratively, particularly in the Pollok Civic Realm. Helen Hughes discusses a series of display and interpretation methods currently being tested with the intention of discovering new means and methods for getting people to better engage with the objects on display. “The challenge for conservators is to make sure that this can be done and keep the objects safe, or, on the occasions when that is not possible, to be able to communicate why and offer alternatives”.  

A brief overview of the live Q&A:

Following this, the Q&A rather neatly initiated with a question about the different display and interpretation methods being tested in the Burrell Renaissance, specifically how conservators working with the Burrell collection are handling the aforementioned contemporary strategies for public engagement. Helen Hughes articulated this point very soundly by stressing that the Burrell Collection has been working alongside Glasgow’s museum outreach team, Open Museum, to engage directly with the public. Through this visitor research, the museum has seen a positive growth in public participation and engagement. For example, Hughes and de Roemer both mentioned steps that the Burrell Collection is taking to reduce the amount of jargon in labelling in order to make sure that visitors understand what’s going on.

Alongside this, the Burrell Collection is also discovering new ways for explaining quite complicated treatments and display procedures, such as why objects are hung at particular heights. Hughes used the controversy of paintings hanging at very low heights as an example of this, stressing that the museum’s reasoning reflects their effort to focus on the visitor’s perspective, “not just how we want to display them”. I particularly liked de Roemer’s description of the Burrell Collection openly welcoming a variety of different communities and school children to “play the curator”. The Museum’s determination to invite community members to take part in the decision-making process around accessibility is inspiring (see image 3).

Audience members Celeste Barnard and Graeme Scott followed this up with questions about the Museum’s philosophy regarding visitor research, and how it might change after the Burrell reopens. Scott posed a predominantly pandemic-related query, asking if Coronavirus “…has affected the plans for the renovated museum, apart from any possible delays - have any of the display methods or policies been modified due to the ongoing restrictions and need to modify staff and visitor behaviours?” Hughes responded by clarifying that displays haven’t been changed, but the installation has. Museum staff and contractors have had to work separately on all display systems. As for having the Museum open during this time, Hughes established that managing clipped visitor numbers at set times seems to be working.

While the Burrell Collection is closed, you can follow the progress of the Renaissance project and access other information about the collection via the following social channels:






Author and byline:

Alexandra Taylor is an assistant paintings conservator at Saltmarsh Paintings Conservation in Cambridge, U.K.