Glasgow University

November 18, 1994

Glasgow University is a prizewinner for its visitor centre, the first in the country, and a symbol of the university's determination to become more open to a wider public than staff and students.

"A university which stands on a hill presenting a rather formidable facade needs a focal point to attract people in," says principal Sir William Kerr Fraser. "We were anxious to get rid of the ivory tower image accentuated by the Victorian Gothic design, and make the place more user-friendly."

It can be difficult for a university dating from medieval times, with an image of elitism, to appear outgoing in an era of mass higher education, he adds, and the visitor centre emphasises that the university is concerned with the community at large. The centre has outstripped even the university's expectations, attracting more than 80,000 visitors a year, including local people, British and overseas tourists to the city, schoolchildren and graduates who can share in the cultural resources built up over the centuries.

It is the first point of contact for information of any kind about the university, with displays and videos of its history and current activities, a cafe, and a shop selling souvenirs based on the university's artistic, scientific and historical treasures. These include collections of old masters in the Hunterian Art Gallery, alongside Scottish art and a large number of works by Whistler; a reconstruction of the Glasgow home of the architect and artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh, which includes regular temporary exhibitions from the university's store of Mackintosh material; and the Hunterian Museum, whose displays range from an explanation of evolution and the origins of the planet to the story of coinage throughout the ages.

The university is also harnessing the latest technology to allow easier access to its holdings: for example, Sir William says, it now has a permanent exhibition of treasures from its medieval book collection in cabinets with a new type of light source which creates no heat and therefore does not damage the books. Visitors can touch archaeological relics and historic scientific equipment.

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