JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE RIVERSIDE MUSEUM for The Scotsman, 22.6.11
THE HEAVENS opened, the Glasgow weather did its midsummer worst; but nothing, it seemed, could dampen the mood of excitement down at the old Govan Ferry, on the day when the people of Glasgow acquired a new “dear green place” to take to their hearts. Set on a bleak headland on the north side of the river, Zaha Hadid’s inconic Riverside Museum building is undeniably a thing of beauty, curving and rolling like a wave between the railway and the river. Outside, its zinc-clad roof and pleated walls are all grey and blue; inside, the walls, ceilings and walkways of Hadid’s great, column-free space – shaped like a large, uneven “u” – are painted in a sharp, fresh green, slightly startling, always vivid.
The building seems to work well, in terms of access, facilities, food, drink and ambience. The downstairs cafe has a riverside terrace, the upstairs self-service bar has a fine view across the water. The transport links are impeccable, by train, boat, underground, ferry and new, dedicated bus from George Square; and the staff are as enthusiastic and excited as the visitors, as they help everyone from jolly gangs of schoolchildren to elderly couples to climb in and out of old trams, buses and subway trains, to admire the huge South African locomotive built at Queen’s Park Works in 1945, and to find their way around the myriad astonishing and fascinating objects that this city museum – transport-based, but also featuring many other historic artefacts – has to offer.
Whether the exhibition itself offers the same quality of experience as the building will, I suspect, be the subject of prolonged debate. What’s clear almost at first glance is that the complex space is crammed to bursting with vehicles, objects, and small screens offering personal stories, to the extent that it’s often difficult to stand back and take a measured view of some of the most impressive exhibits; and that that sense of crowding, combined with a resolute refusal to arrange the material in a clear chronological or thematic order, makes it difficult for the ordinary visitor to grasp the real weight and value of the collection. Add to that lack of clarity an inconsistent and jumbled presentation of information about what we’re looking at – there a tiny notice, here a large signboard, there a temperamental and confusing touch-screen display – and it’s no wonder that people were to heard asking, in good-natured puzzlement, why “they’re not telling us which boat it is”, or why, in front of the Arnold Clark Wall of Cars, the touch-screen information-points stand so close to the wall that you can’t look simultaneously at the information, and at the cars.
By far the most eloquent and successful part of the museum is the late-19-century street, full of traditional shops, an old subway station and tramcars; here, the space and the layout tell the whole story, loud and clear. For the rest of the museum, though, the curators need to take a deep breath, make some difficult choices about the artefacts they will put on display, give them room to breathe, have the courage to tell a lucid and compelling story through them (even if that story is only there to be challenged), and dramatically raise their game in terms of clear, consistent information, accessible at a glance. When I arrived at the museum, I asked one of the friendly staff members whether there was an audio tour, or if not where I should start on my journey round the museum, so as not to miss any highlights. “Oh,” she said, “you just start anywhere and go anywhere, it’s not really connected.” And despite the glory of the material on view here, and the obvious affection for it shown by the packed first-day crowds, the truth is that without that sense of connection and context, even the most magnificent objects lose some of their power, and speak to us less clearly than they should.