Museums United Kingdom

Glasgow's second try to alter donor's will

Scottish city wants to lift travel ban so world tour of Burrell Collection can raise its profile and funds

This Flemish tapestry could travel while its Scottish home (below) is restored—but it will need parliament’s approval

Glasgow City Council is seeking the Scottish Parliament’s approval to send works from the Burrell Collection on an international tour, going against the wishes of the donor, William Burrell (1861-1958), a shipping magnate who banned his collection from going abroad.

The parliament will be asked to amend conditions in Burrell’s bequest, making it possible for works to travel to Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, among other venues. Loans would also go to the British Museum in London.

A statement by the council says that “a tour would be used to reaffirm the collection’s status as one of the most important in the world and also help with public fundraising efforts towards the cost of refurbishment”. A third of the 8,000-strong collection is displayed in a purpose-built museum called the Burrell Collection, which is run by Glasgow Museums on behalf of the city council. The museum opened in 1983. It is in Pollok Country Park, four miles south-west of the city centre, and attracted 183,000 visitors last year.

Under the terms of his bequest, Burrell stipulated that no works should be loaned overseas: he was worried that objects might be damaged in transit. Since then, air freight, improved packing techniques and advances in preventative conservation have made it much safer to transport art.

Glasgow council first tried to get the restrictions on overseas loans lifted between 1992 and 1997, but the move was resisted by the Sir William Burrell Trust. This time, the trustees seem ready to back the change. A statement by the council says that the trustees are “examining proposals”. The trustees are unwilling to comment at this stage, but informed sources suggest that they are likely to give their approval.

Last month, the Burrell Collection building, designed by the architect Barry Gasson, was listed for its architectural importance. The 30-year-old building requires major works (emergency repairs were made to the roof last year) and interior environmental conditions need upgrading. The costs are expected to be tens of millions of pounds. If everything goes to plan, building work—which would mean closing the building for four years and moving the collection into storage—could start in 2016.

Lending works abroad would have three advantages: it would enable access to the major pieces, raise income and put the Burrell Collection and Glasgow Museums in a stronger position to request international loans for their own shows.

Burrell’s ban on loans has meant that key paintings in the collection by artists such as Degas, Gauguin and Cézanne have been missing from major retrospectives. Opportunities for the tapestries and carpets to be shown and studied in exhibitions have been missed.

A draft parliamentary private bill to permit loans was due to be considered by Glasgow council as we went to press. The bill would allow a one-off international tour and subsequent loans of individual items. Since the council supports the plan, it will probably be approved. The bill would then go before parliament. With backing from the council and the Burrell trustees, it could be approved this autumn.

The initial plans are for a major tour with five international venues, probably including Atlanta. Venues in France, Japan, China, Russia and Qatar are under discussion. The proposal is still at an early stage, but the tour is likely to include between 100 and 200 objects from the collection.

A six-month exhibition at the British Museum is under discussion. Loans may also be made to other Scottish venues, such as the National Museum of Scotland and the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh.

Burrell’s eclectic taste

The Burrell Collection is not as well known as it deserves to be, partly because of its loan restrictions. It comprises 8,000 items, a third of which are on view. Burrell’s tastes were highly eclectic. The collection’s strongest element, which has never been fully published, is Chinese art. There is a fine collection of Late Gothic and Early Renaissance works from Northern Europe, including tapestries, stained glass, sculpture and furniture, and a strong collection of late 19th-century French art, much of it amassed with the help of the Glasgow art dealer Alexander Reid, a friend of Van Gogh. The collection also contains important Dutch paintings, British portraits, Islamic and Persian art, Caucasian and Indian carpets and Near Eastern, Egyptian, Greek and Roman antiquities.

The Burrell Collection's 30-year-old building requires major works (emergency repairs were made to the roof last year) and interior environmental conditions need upgrading
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14 Mar 13
21:22 CET


I understood that Burrell forbade works from going across water. If this is correct, not only can they be lent to the rest of Great Britain but, by using the Channel Tunnel, to the whole of Europe and beyond. To change his will would discourage future potential bequests and thereby do great damage to museums everywhere. Air travel is not 100% safe. There is a Picasso at the bottom of the Atlantic.

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