Thousand years of history

HOW do you compress nearly 1000 years of Glasgow's history in 300 square metres?

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It sounds almost like a question in a maths exam but that was the challenge for curators at Kelvingrove when they started working on the redisplay of the Glasgow Stories exhibition space.

From minuscule fossils and fragments of medieval wooden bowls to a ticket from the 1888 Glasgow International Exhibition in Kelvingrove Park, they all play an important role in telling our story.

Deciding how to put them together was no easy task, explains Helen Watkins, research manager for history at Kelvingrove.

"This gallery covers the period from the 1100s to the present day, it has been quite a challenge," she admits.

The displays will give an overview of our history to local people and also to the thousands of tourists expected to visit Kelvingrove this summer.

It considers how Glasgow has come to be a city of national and international significance.

Some of the most important pieces on show might not look like much at first, but cast a closer eye over them to discover the very earlier fragments of our story, when the cathedral was at the heart of city life.

"Many of these little silver coins from the 1200s, excavated at Bishop's House, Easterhouse, have not been on show before outside of the city," says Helen.

"And we have a light panel showing glass fragments from the Franciscan Friary on Shuttle Street, showing the kind of floor tiles that were made internationally in that period. Some were imported from France in the 1400s."

The Georgian period looks at the massive boom in wealth in the 1700s, the heyday of the city's 'Tobacco Lords'.

The city's wealth was built on cotton, coal and iron ore, filling the pockets of merchants who traded in tobacco and sugar and funded the city, planning and developing the grid system of streets we're still familiar with today.

Mansions were built and the city expanded, but at what cost?

"It was a double-edged sword, it was a time of great wealth and prosperity but it was absolutely founded on the slave trade," concedes Helen.

"Even though there wasn't a significant amount of slave trading or slaves in Glasgow, the city was implicated just in terms of the trade routes."

A picture of William Cunninghame's mansion, now the Gallery of Modern Art, shows the city in all its 18th century finery.

Of course, growth really came with the Victorians, and a huge painting by John Adam Plimmer Houston of the view of the city from the Necropolis shows hundreds of smoking chimneys, as far as the eye can see.

While shipbuilding and ironworks boomed, Glaswegians who had any spare time away from the daily toil had plenty to do.

"There are leaflets and posters from theatres and you can get a sense of the entertainment of the time," says Helen. She points to a small square ticket in the display case. "Although it's a very modest little thing, this is significant: a presentation by Charles Dickens in the City Hall, Albion Street, from December 16, 1868."

The industrialisation of the city gave birth to radical politics and a giant trade union banner perfectly displays how workers communicated their demands for better conditions.

Nearby in a corner hangs a metal cage used to take a miner deep underground. Looking more like a leftover from a torture chamber, it represents the brutality of daily working life.

The rebirth of the city with the Glasgow's Miles Better campaign and the reawakening as a cultural hub from 1990 represent where we are now.

As well as work by contemporary artists, from Christine Borland and Martin Boyce, there are designs by Timorous Beasties and an early piece by Jilli Blackwood, who designed the uniforms worm for the Commonwealth Games flag handover to Glasgow in Delhi.

A favourite piece for Helen is a simple dessert spoon, used to rattle against the fence at Faslane when those at the nearby peace camp protested against nuclear weapons in Scotland.

Remembered by many is a large section of a 600-year-old Douglas fir, originally on show at the 1901 Great Exhibition, then on display for decades at Kelvingrove.

"Before this the gallery looked at social issues, with displays on sectarianism, mental health and violence against women," says Helen. "This is approaching stories of Glasgow in a new way."

Councillor Archie Graham, chairman of Glasgow Life, says this summer the city will be in the world spotlight like never before.

"The Games is about more than 11 days of sport," he said. "We want to share our incredible city with the Commonwealth.

"The Glasgow Stories gallery enables Glaswegians to share some of the pride and passion they feel about the city's cultural legacy, which is best reflected in our museum collection. It is a most enlightening journey."

angela.mcmanus@eveningtimes.co.uk

Arts and Entertainment

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