First look at the new Burrell collection
A GORGEOUS garden pattern on an antique rug magically comes to life. Stories unfold on giant screens, priceless objects that are nearby. Tiny details on small works of art become crystal clear, magnified to magnificent proportions…
The newly revamped Burrell Collection, which opens in March after a multimillion-pound refurbishment, uses digital media on a scale never seen before in a museum to reveal the stories behind each of its more than 9,000 objects and works of art. art.
It’s a stunning display of almost 100 different elements, from giant video walls and immersive movies to interactive games and touch experiences. Revealed exclusively at The Herald ahead of reopening – some kept strictly secret, but dramatic and breathtaking – they allow visitors to place themselves at the heart of the world-renowned collection for the first time.
“We use digital to tell people about objects in a museum, where they come from, what they were used for, who made them,” says David Scott, digital media manager at Glasgow Life, which runs the Museum. “The big challenge for the Burrells is that most of us have no frame of reference.
“At Riverside, everyone knows what a bus or train is – we share that experience. It’s a bit more difficult when dealing with decorative, often obscure, artwork.
Shipping magnate Sir William Burrell and his wife Lady Constance collected thousands of works of art before donating it all to the city of Glasgow in 1944. The purpose-built Burrell Collection opened in 1983 and closed in 2016 for a £69 million renovation, made possible by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
Community engagement work has ranged from inviting the city’s toddlers to help design a play space outside the new Burrell, to creating ‘hands-on boxes’ that feature objects from the museum chosen by representatives of local groups, who will now return to the communities that created them .
Scott has been producing digital content for the heritage sector for over 20 years. He joined Glasgow Museums in 2005, as digital curator for the £74million Riverside Museum project and now works at 10 sites across the city.
His experience at the Riverside Museum of Transport taught him a lot about “what people look for in a day at a museum”.
“There was a lot of learning,” he admits. “The Burrell had a dwindling visitor base, and the challenge was to make it relevant to all parts of the population, without destroying the original.
“Family groups, for example, don’t have half an hour to look at an object. Digital allows us to help people create a relationship with a particular piece of art or object.
Scott adds, “We put content on screens at the Burrell that you can only see at the Burrell. It will be of a size never seen elsewhere. All documentary films can be translated into 10 different languages, including British Sign Language.
“We want people to feel welcome – to see their city and themselves in the museum.”
Access is key – says Scott, and not just digital access, of course. The renovated Burrell will have three physical entrances instead of just one, including a new main entrance and a direct entrance to the cafe. The floor space is greatly increased, with former lecture halls and staff offices transformed into exhibition spaces, and more of the collection than ever before will be displayed in a patchwork of 25 galleries. Objects that haven’t seen the light of day in decades – and some that have never been exhibited – will be on display. The café has been expanded and an outdoor plaza will include a “playscape” for young children.
A space will be entirely dedicated to manufacturing and technique, explains Scott.
“A series of films will be played on video screens located next to particular objects, demonstrating the processes and techniques used to make those objects and introducing viewers to the creators,” he adds.
“What’s unusual about these screens is that they’re life-size – about two and a half meters high. It’s very appealing, very easy to look at and very easy to understand.
Equally unusual for a museum, Scott points out, the Burrell team made 30 of these films in-house. All but two of the manufacturers featured are in the UK and the majority are Scottish.
“There’s a particularly beautiful one about the grass engraving, another follows a velvet maker whose techniques are exactly the same as would have been used to make the velvet in the collection,” says Scott. “The films are fascinating and provide a quick and elegant reference to the objects themselves.
“With so many decorative items, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with details and not know where to focus. The beauty of digital is that it allows you to go into that detail and unlock things that the untrained eye might otherwise miss.
Two films, also shown on three-metre-high screens, aim to tell more about the lives of Sir William and Lady Constance Burrell. With archival photographs and actors playing the couple, viewers are taken on a journey through 1910 Glasgow, from the Burrells’ home in the West End, to other key buildings and areas of the city that provide insight of their rise in power and their connection. Towards the city; the second delves into the lives of the Burrells at Hutton Castle, the Dumfriesshire home they lived in as part of their collection.
The interactive games, designed for children under five and parents to play together, use state-of-the-art gaming and touchscreen technology – one is based on Aesop’s Fables, which William Burrell has read to his daughter, Marion, another involves “virtual” dressing.
“It’s about creating a fun experience that families can enjoy together,” says Scott. “Large video walls will show films that reveal the stories behind objects on display nearby – one of the most incredible is that of the Wagner rug, which takes the viewer into the pattern itself.”
Wagner’s Garden Carpet is the third oldest known Persian garden carpet in the world, dating from the 17th century and depicting a “paradise” garden.
“At a glance, it can be a bit overwhelming, but what the film does is turn it into a ‘pop-up’ version of itself, bringing it to life over the course of a day, from dawn to dusk, and diving into the detail,” says Scott.
“It’s very special – a thoughtful and gentle way to learn about these objects, playful, but still respectful.”
Scott, like everyone involved with the Burrell since its closure, is now eager to share his reinvention with the public.
“Being a part of that – that’s the best job in museum service,” he smiles. “It’s hard work, and it’s a huge challenge.
“But we are doing something here in Glasgow that is very ambitious, of a size and scale that has never been done in a museum anywhere else in the world, and we are all very proud of it.”