“The challenge is not to be complacent and to keep challenging ourselves.” - an interview with Rosemary Watt
The Riverside museum is well known in Glasgow, Scotland, United Kingdom. Formerly know as the Museum of Transport the museum changed its name when it moved to its new location next to the river Clyde in 2011. In 2013 the museum won the European Museum of the Year award. The new building was designed by the award winning architect Hadid, also putting it on the map in architectural circles. The museum has an increasing popularity, not only in Scotland but also abroad. I was curious about what the motivation was for the relocation, if this had influenced the team in their approach and to know if winning the award made any difference.
On a personal note: When I was a boy of 5 or 6 years old my dad took me to the Museum of Transport in Glasgow. It was the first museum I visited in Scotland and it was the start of my fascination for museums which is still with me to this day and hopefully for many more years to come. So when I had the opportunity to interview someone from the new museum, I jumped on it and took off to Glasgow.
Rosemary Watt, senior curator of the new Riverside Museum talked me through the move. In the interview I had with her I learned not only about the inner workings of the museum and issues during the move but also about the research that goes into the design of the exhibition, the strategy of adapting the existing exhibition using visitor feedback, the constant fine-tuning rather than having many temporary exhibitions and the appeal of the museum to different audiences. It also turned out that there were major underlying social aspects to bring together the people of Glasgow.
Could you introduce yourself and the organisation you work for?
“My name is Rosemary Watt and my official title is Research Manager Decorative Art and Technology for Glasgow Museums which is part of Glasgow Life. This is an agency that runs all the cultural and sporting facilities for Glasgow City Council. I have worked for the museum service for a very long time *chuckles* . I’m a decorative art specialist, precious metals and jewellery etc. I have started working with the Transport Collection since 2012 and before that at the Burrel Collection (ed: a museum with a large fine art collection also in Glasgow) in the decorative arts department. I run a team of curators, who work across the service, so I’m not working just in this building (the Riverside Museum) but I was part of the content development team for the new Riverside Museum.”
Moving to the new location
The old building was popular to the public so why did they actually move? Rosemary told me that it was an unexpected opportunity that was offered to them. They loved the old location but it had also considerable drawbacks such as problems with water from the roof, the river and the airconditioning.
I recall the old building and the way the collection was housed. Here there are some clear changes. With the transition from the old location to the new location: were there specific things you and the curator team had in mind?
‘We did not seek to move, it was an opportunity that was given to us. An opportunity we were very glad of. We loved the location, opposite our headquarters, the Kelvingrove Art Galleries. Although we did have many problems there with the especially the water, coming up from everywhere: from the ceiling, the side (the air-conditioning) and the bottom (the river). Sometimes you had all three at once and it was very difficult.
Also it was an inflexible building, it didn’t have the right IT and electronic infrastructure. To have made it a contemporary and flexible space we would have to completely strip and refurbished it which we would have done if this opportunity had not presented itself.’
Moving to the river was ideal and gave the museum an immediate link to their ship model collection and Glasgow’s history of shipbuilders from the 1830’s until the 1960’s. It is on a historic location. Right across from us over the Clyde is a famous crossing point, used since medieval times: the Govan ferry. We’re also on the site of the last ocean liner/paddle steamer that was built here.
‘We took the opportunity to create a space that was flexible. In the old building moving the collection had a domino effect. We wanted an open space, no pillars but no technology shed. We wanted the opportunity to change the displays as often as we wanted to and also in response to visitor reactions and comments, research and new technology. We knew we were very popular, there was always a friendly atmosphere due not only to the location but also to the staff. We definitely wanted to keep that.’
Collection and Display
Rosemary describes specifics of the displays of the Riverside Museum. “We focus on the collection and not on changing temporary exhibitions as other museums in Glasgow do. A part of the collection is switched due to conservation reasons, others because we want to. Instead of having temporary exhibitions we prefer to keep changing part of the collection on display partly through feedback we receive so we keep fine tuning the displays according to the preferences of the visitors. The collection is big enough that we can afford to do this.
We have layered information throughout the exhibition on green and black boxes with electronic information. This information is about the object itself and not about the history of transport. So it’s information about the tram or locomotive itself. We are trying to balance the information that we offer. There are specific stories and situations and these stories can be changed. We could choose to change, by for instances concentrating on the technical parts of the vehicle, or the view of the driver or the memories of people who used to travel with it. We also know that there is a body of visitors that want to know about the technical and historic. For them we offer more technical and detailed information.”
The government is teaching children about road safety so we also have a part for young children with traffic lights, interactive button and the story is told by a lollypop lady so they recognise the situation. This is specifically aimed at the children who are under five years old.
Does the museum do everything internally or do they outsource a lot of work?
“We do a lot ourselves but this is not possible for everything. We had the old ship models in fixed glass displays in the Clyde room and now we have them on a conveyor belt. We can change the conveyor belt but to change it is difficult from IT perspective. So this has to be outsourced.”
In the old building there was a model of a street set in the 1930’s, where people could look into the buildings and get feeling of what the street of Glasgow must have been like. What has happened to it?
Rosemary admits that this has always been very popular, even though people said it was outdated. So they have expanded upon it. “We had visitors tugging at the doors, now we let them go inside. The pub is very popular as is the café, which were both lifted from their actual location. So it is a real pub and a real café. We get people coming with stories, for example on how they met their future partner. You may not have noticed but in the cafe, the display is aimed at the sensory impaired (visually impaired) visitors. The voice-over describe the objects in the picture, so that they get an idea. The majority of our films are subtitled as well.”
Welcoming atmosphere and no barriers
I notice that admission to the museums are free in Scotland, contrary to the Netherlands. And I see a lot more families with children. How do you approach your audience to come in?
“This is interesting, it is a different tradition. Local authority in the 18th century Library Act said that all museums and libraries should be open to all the public for free by law. This was done deliberately to ensure there are no barriers. We don’t create any barriers to visiting.
For the building we had to ensure that we weren’t creating a barrier by taking away the old building and the welcoming feeling that the old building had. It was a well known and well loved place.
We did a lot of formal and informal visitor research in preparation of the move. We tested ideas, themes and non-visitor research, statistical analyses and display analysis. We knew by looking at the visitors that it was emphatically a museum for families with small children, primary and nursery schools but secondary schools not so much. For the new building we wanted attract newer visitors. We started off knowing who our current visitors were, who we were aiming to get. There were initiatives of the Scottish government on widening access to cultural facilities and also from the Glasgow Council to reach areas that normally don’t provide many visitors. We targeted who were already coming, endorse the school curriculum, did postcode surveys and targeted visitors and areas that don’t usually come."
What methods did you use to reach this wider audience?
“We wanted people to understand the collection. A part of the older audience, people with technical knowledge, would say ‘You haven’t a museum for us anymore!’ and we said “Yes we have, everything is still here but you how to contact us, by desk, Phone and email, if you want something specifically.” We even open part of the collection in storage for them in the storage building and have special guided tours for them with specialist guides. The curatorial team has worked very hard to let the knowledgeable visitors know that we do accommodate them and their interest. But the displays in the museum are mostly aimed at families and school classes.
There is enough space to gather a group of up to twenty children. For the under-fives the texts are aimed at the accompanying adults who will then explain things to them.”
One of the new target audiences are teenagers. It is well known that it is very difficult to get teenagers into a museum let alone keep them interested. A lot of museums try but don’t succeed. How did you go about it?
“Ah yes, the teenagers were a challenge! We brought in specialist authors to train our staff to use the language of teenagers to create a feeling of recognition so that it would appeal to them instead of creating a barrier. Language is very important! We shouldn’t assume that we know it all. Interpretation is communication. A two way communication, instead of us telling them what’s important. We use very firm word limits, image limits. We have the idea for the display, a key message, one or two things you want them to remember when they leave the display, and one or two objects that convey the message. And sometimes you have a message and certain objects and it turns out that the message doesn’t come across and you have to start again.”
But the team found a way to tackle this. They involved the panels from all the target groups as well as an academic and educational panel in the testing of the displays.
“The teen panel: they were great!” Pupils from two high schools from two different areas (Govan and Hillhead secondary school, comparable to Amsterdam-Oost en Amsterdam-Zuid) were part of the panel. These children would never have met under normal circumstances. The children were consulted for the displays as well as the architectural aspects of the Riverside museum.
‘We like a challenge! It’s important to target the teens because they are the family visitor of tomorrow. For example I always went to the Kelvingrove with my father every Saturday for four years in a row and that goes for a lot of the local people. Later they come back with their own children.’
The museum as a social experience
It’s a popular museum, does it have a lot of local public support? It seems the museum allows the public to have a big influence on the exhibition.
“Absolutely. The museum is built on a bedrock of local support. We have made the museum into a social space and we want to attract a wide range of people from all areas so we have to create a visitor experience. Cost shouldn’t be a barrier: access is free, apart from the canteen we have areas in the museum where people can eat packed lunches they bring from home. Staff and cleaners are very positive about this, we just make sure there is always a cleaner stand-by for this area. Govan had been spending education funds on the ferry so people can cross the river for free and we have a real beach in the summer where people can sit on deckchairs and towels. They will then also come in with the children for a quick round and look at something different every time.
People laughed when we started it but they don’t laugh now! It’s a social meeting place and it’s adding to what we already offer here. We also used it for special activities such as the Blue Light Event (with police, ambulances and fire brigade) which was a huge success or we lease it to clubs, sometimes for free. Other things we’ve done have failed abysmally (big smile) but we are very lucky.”
Finally: has being awarded with the EMYA changed anything for the Riverside?”
“The new building attracted a new audience, the building and the discussions in the European press has attracted more tourists. The building is made by the well-known architect Zaha Hadid. So now we get a lot of fans of architecture, who just look at the building and ignore the exhibition, which is a new experience for us.”
I have really enjoyed this interview and the chance to museum from a different side. It has changed and grown. It is very impressive how this team of dedicated people have developed so many new elements without losing the charm of the old museum.
“The challenge is not to be complacent and to keep challenging ourselves.”