Gurning heads, helmets and manicured crabs

September 15, 2006

Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

Argyle Street, Glasgow. Monday to Thursday and Saturday, 10am to 5pm; Friday and Sunday, 11am to 5pm.

Disembodied and quite a surprise, Sophie Cave's cluster of giant matt-finished heads hangs from the ceiling. All are identical apart from their expressions, which vary from wide-mouthed laughter and gurning discomfort to what looks like relief. So striking are they that it takes a while to realise that the gallery, one of many in this spectacular building, is full of heads, from ancient actors' masks to Victorian marble busts.

This mix and match of old and new, expected and unexpected, runs throughout the newly refurbished Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, irritating purists perhaps but catching the attention of unprecedented numbers of enthusiastic visitors since the museum's recent reopening after a three-year closure. There are some who may miss the long blocks of explanatory text that traditionally accompany objects in museums, and indeed sometimes more information would be helpful. But this is more than balanced by the fresh and largely successful attempt to contextualise objects. Thus, Renaissance paintings are displayed alongside the armour and weapons used at the time, and North American Indian artefacts sit within displays devoted to the social life of Glasgow - where they tell of the visit by Buffalo Bill's Wild West show in 1891.

As a visiting archaeologist, I was delighted to discover something familiar in the stripped-down but much improved archaeology gallery. It's a small ceramic vessel called a pygmy cup, which I discovered some years ago alongside cremated bone. That much you are told, but here we come to the label thing again. As the excavator who retrieved the object, I know that it was found in a small pit beneath a stone cairn, where 2,500 years ago it had been upturned over the charred remains of a young woman. That's information that would have perhaps made a thing special to me feel just as special to anyone else now seeing it in a glass case. Instead, the visitor is left to wonder.

Perhaps most surprising of all the displays in Kelvingrove are the stuffed animals. Usually rather moth-eaten and altogether depressing, they seem to have benefited from their three-year holiday - even at one point enjoying a fly-past by a Spitfire, which like a giant model kit is suspended above a diverse herd that includes an elephant, a giraffe and a huge spider crab.

Having been pampered and manicured, these immortal beasts are now accompanied by informative video displays and hands-on encounters. Some even dwell within an imaginative tunnel from which children pop out like overexcited rabbits.

It's not all fun, however. In one telling display, the trophy heads of antelopes and buffalo hang from the wall above a cabinet full of the guns used to kill them back in the days when gentlemen did such things. This juxtaposition continues in the dramatic arms gallery, which, in keeping with the ethos of a museum with a record of repatriating objects, is upfront about Britain's sometimes less than glorious empire. It is here that the juxtaposition of a pangolin and a swordfish alongside helmets and swords demonstrates how human ingenuity may not have advanced as far ahead of the animal kingdom as people might like to think.

Tony Pollard is the director of the Centre for Battlefield Archaeology at Glasgow University.

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