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From Heavy Industry to High Culture: the Riverside Museum in Glasgow

2011 April 19

Glasgow’s third transport museum, designed by the famous Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, is scheduled to open its doors to the public on 21 June 2011. The Riverside Museum constitutes the first purpose-built transport museum in Glasgow and can thus be seen as a product of an ongoing change in the city’s attitudes to its industrial heritage. Many Victorian material remnants testifying to Glasgow’s abundant trade and industrial expansion have been displayed in various relatively small collections, such as that exhibited in the popular social history museum The People’s Palace, but have not been monumentalised at a scale of the Riverside’s dimensions. The strikingly svelte building is both physically and conceptually rooted in Glasgow’s Victorian shipyards, mimicking the shape of the sheds and embodying the ongoing exchange between the city and the river.

Industry has played a prominent part in the construction of Glasgow’s civic identity, as Lord Provost Bob Winter’s message on the Glasgow City Council website makes clear: “The Glasgow in which I was born was known as the “Second City of the Empire” and was a powerhouse of heavy industry, supplying ships, locomotives and heavy industrial products worldwide.”[1] The spectacular upsurge in industrial productivity that continues to mould the city’s self-image dates back roughly to the mid-Victorian age—historian T.M. Devine speaks of 1850 as the beginning of “the halcyon days of iron, engineering and shipbuilding,” leading to dramatic improvement in Scotland until about 1950.[2] Because of their everyday-status as tools that enabled the smooth flow of people and goods, transportation vehicles—as well as industrial sites—only gained the rank of museum-objects once their functional redundancy was completed: the first Glasgow transport museum was established in the decommissioned Copelawhill Tram Shed, following the demise of trams in the 1960s. In 1988, the growing collection was moved to Glasgow’s Kelvin Hall, where 1,400 objects were displayed. The closing-ceremony of the second transport museum on 18 April, 2010 was a very emotional occasion for Glaswegians, as Liz Cameron from Glasgow Culture and Sport stressed in her speech: “Everyone feels nostalgic for [this museum] and the final day will be a way for the museum to say goodbye to people, before the dramatic re-introduction of its exhibits at the Riverside, which is a spectacular building. It is like a cathedral.”[3] The meaning of transport-related everyday-objects has thus shifted from ensuring logistical convenience to embodying social history, to the point of attaining religious significance.

The Riverside’s location is indeed “steeped in history,’ as the Glasgow Museums website advertises, as it was “at the heart of Glasgow’s industrial past.” Built at Pointhouse, a shipyard since 1845, which was acquired by A&J Inglis in 1862, the Riverside and its collection transform the Victorian industrial site into an official lieu de mémoire and tourist-attraction. An engagement with the external, as much as the internal, context of the museum was central to Zaha Hadid’s design: besides openings in the roof and walls, “the end elevation is like the front elevation with an expansive clear glass façade [which] will allow expansive views up and down the Clyde.”[4] The building’s shape, which is “porous to its context on either side,” is designed to embody and, one assumes, encourage, the “dynamic relationship” between the city and the Clyde. Due to its restricted space, the former transport museum appeared cluttered and the collection was presented in quite strictly separated categories: trains, trams, cars, bikes and ships were exhibited in different rooms, connected by the main exhibition hall, which housed a cluttered mix of objects.

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While we cannot be sure as to the exact display of the objects at the Riverside, the museum places emphasis on the variety of its collection by changing the items on display eight times a year. Moving through a column-free interior that is shaped like a bend in the river, the visitors’ experience is bound to be interactive and self-directed. Although, regrettably, the museum’s reproduction streets do not include a Victorian street scene, variations and adaptations of Victorian architectural and technological designs should be traceable in the 1900s, 1920s-30s and 1960s-80s mock-ups. The former transport museum displayed a large collection of model ships in glass cases—these will now move past the visitors and towards the Clyde on a 24m-long conveyor belt.

Both conceptually and structurally, the Riverside promises to be an ideal space for the public’s engagement with the variety of historical attitudes to technological progress. Doing away with the typical compartmentalisation of the exhibition space and the museum site, the Riverside impresses through its conceptual openness, which grounds 21-century design and museum-philosophy within a nineteenth-century context. The 1896 Glenlee (Tall Ship) that is permanently stationed at the museum’s harbour-like exterior symbolises the firm integration of the Victorian past into the city’s cultural future. The transport vehicles on display are invaluable traces of Scotland’s social and industrial history and they have, for the first time in Glasgow, been given an immensely prestigious setting, typically reserved for high art.


[1] http://www.glasgow.gov.uk/en/AboutGlasgow/LordProvostsmessage/

[2] Devine, The Scottish Nation, p. 108.

[3]http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/transport-environment/the-end-of-the-road-museum-of-transport-to-close-in-april-1.1007463#

[4] http://www.glasgowarchitecture.co.uk/museum_of_transport_glasgow.php

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