Glasgow's new Riverside Museum presents an evolving story of travel and transport – and of the people who use it
‘One of the first things I thought when I visited the old Museum of Transport,’ says Lawrence Fitzgerald, the man in charge of the project to deliver Glasgow’s first major new museum in almost 30 years, ‘was, "Why isn’t it on the Clyde?"’ It’s a fair point. After all, Glasgow’s shipbuilding industry was the major element of the city’s international reputation for a century and a half. Now the Riverside Museum, the flagship building which will this month replace the city’s Museum of Transport, sits on the north bank of the Clyde, across from the old Govan dockyards and with the relocated Tall Ship Glenlee now a feature of its collection.
The new building was designed by Zaha Hadid, the Iraqi-born architect whose other constructions include the Stirling Prize-winning MAXXI Museum of the 21st Century Arts in Rome, the Guangzhou Opera House in China, and the Maggie’s Centre in Kirkcaldy, Fife, her first commission in the UK. As is the way with ambitious modern architecture, it’s a striking design which may well split opinion on the street. ‘The ‘double-S’ design at the front isn’t entirely for decoration,’ says Fitzgerald. ‘It functions almost like a corrugated roof, to provide strength and support, and enable us to have a completely column-free space inside. Viewed from a distance it also looks like the peaks of a city skyline, or it can represent the waves of the ocean.’
The building’s windows have been designed to protect the more sensitive parts of the 3000-object collection (around twice as many as the old Museum of Transport) from sunlight, for example the leather upholstery of vintage cars, while the interior space is intended to break with tradition. ‘Most transport museums around the world use that ‘old cogs’ kind of design, like a factory,’ says Fitzgerald. ‘We don’t want people to feel like they’re coming to work when they come here, so that was one early stipulation – no dull white or grey paint on the walls.’
In terms of the collection’s content, Fitzgerald is keen to stress one important upgrade: this is now a museum of transport and travel. ‘One of the best ways to explain transport,’ he says, ‘is to tell the stories of the people who use it. By understanding how cities work and how they change, for example, we understand how transport itself evolves with them. We have one display called ‘Tram Dancing’, which explains how people would use trams to get to the Barrowlands to go dancing on Saturday nights in the 1940s and 50s – not just how they got there, but what they would wear and so on.’
The old Museum of Transport’s popular ‘Kelvin Street’ exhibit has also been expanded, recreating in detail three streets spanning the years from 1890 to the 1980s. ‘Streets are important,’ says Fitzgerald, ‘because they define cities and the way we travel within them.’ An exterior public plaza the size of George Square has also been designed for skateboard friendliness – another mode of transport – and for potentially hosting outdoor concerts.
Inevitably there will be some complaints about the need for a new museum like this in post-recessionary times, but the Riverside hasn’t just been an overnight project – Fitzgerald came to it way back in 2002, having worked on the redevelopment of Kelvingrove for the previous four years. ‘It’s budgeted at £74 million,’ he says, ‘and fingers crossed it will come in around that figure, barring an asteroid hitting it in the next month.’ (The money came largely from Glasgow City Council and Heritage Lottery Funding, with a contribution from Glasgow Harbour and a £5million private funding target almost achieved.) ‘But when you think of the Princes Street trams,’ says Fitzgerald, ‘that’s some achievement. This building cost only as much in real terms as the Burrell Collection, and when you consider that Kelvingrove was something like £600m in today’s terms …
‘What was probably in the minds of the people who built Kelvingrove has been in ours too, though. That is, the public deserve only the very finest buildings to experience and enjoy.’
Riverside Museum, Glasgow, opens on Tue 21 Jun.