Scotland

The Unseen Exhibits of Glasgow’s Museums By M J Steel Collins

Older Glaswegians reminiscing about going to a museum in their childhood will most likely talk about the Kelvingrove Museum and Art Galleries. A massive, red, sandstone edifice in Spanish Baroque, it holds a special place in many peoples’ hearts in the city. It is also world famous, regarded as having one of the best art collections in Europe.  Moreover, it is the most visited museum in Great Britain outside London.
Kelvingrove sits in the affluent West End of Glasgow, just opposite the Kelvin Hall, the Western Infirmary, Kelvingrove Park and Glasgow University. So it’s not hard to find. It was built in 1901, serving at the Palace of Fine Arts for that year’s Glasgow International Exhibition, before it became that happy place of Glasgow childhood memories. Part of the finance for its construction came from the 1888 International Exhibition. To explain, during the colonial heyday, the British were wont to hold massive expos on a regular basis where they got show off all that was good about Blighty and her territories. Glasgow, as ‘the second city of the Empire’, got in on them on a regular basis. The last big one was the Empire Exhibition in the city’s Bellahouston Park in 1938.
The architects of Kelvingrove Museum were Sir John W Simpson and E J Milner Allen. Part of the design included ornate sculptures on the museum towers, which sadly can only really be appreciated by the birds, roofers or those in low flying planes as they are too high up to be seen from the street. Apparently, they are pretty impressive. There is an urban myth that when the museum was constructed it was mistakenly built back to front. The grand entrance faces Kelvingrove Park and the University behind, whilst Argyle Street, from where visitors enter the museum, is in front. On learning this, the architect threw himself to his death from one of the museum towers. However, this is a myth, as the museum was specifically designed to face onto the park.
I recall a few years back reading in a book that a museum employee had an experience with something spooky lurking up in one of the towers, which are inaccessible to the public. Further research hasn’t enlightened me to what the tale is, but I do wonder if it might be another myth related to the suicide story. In general, the museum doesn’t particularly hold a candle for the paranormal, although there are the odd couple of stories. One appeared in the Fortean Times in March 2008, in which a woman recounts a time slip she experienced when walking past the museum in either 1985 or 86. One second she was walking down a busy Glasgow street, the next she was transported back to a scene from the late 1800s. For a split second, she saw horse drawn carriages, men in top hats and women in bustles. Then, confused, she was back in the 1980s. Interestingly, she didn’t recall architecture. She wouldn’t have seen the museum as it hadn’t been built yet.
On a walk round the museum on a relatively quiet week day morning, my dad, who is distinctly more psychic than me, tried to see what he could pick up in Kelvingrove. Pretty much reinforcing the museum’s lack of ghostly tales, there wasn’t much, though he could detect some rather cheesed off spirits in the early Scottish peoples ‘permanent exhibit and stuffed animals section. Even the museum’s famous stuffed elephant, Sir Roger remained silent. Daytime wasn’t conducive for ghostly communication, and there were too many people around.
Kelvin Hall lies directly across Argyle Street from Kelvingrove Museum and Art Galleries. Until 2011, this was home to the Museum of Transport, my favourite of all the Glasgow museums. These days, it is now housed in a purpose built facility literally across the river from where I live. But before that, like the older generations with Kelvingrove, I have happy memories as a kid, getting off the subway and trooping up to the Kelvin Hall to gawp at the trams, trains and cars that my grandparent travelled about in.  My absolute favourite was Kelvin Street, a 1930s mock up of a fictional Glasgow street, replete with a functioning cinema and fake subway station. Dimly lit, and always with a quiet hint of rain (yes, even in a model street indoors – it is Glasgow), this part of the museum always fired up my imagination. It was extremely cool to my ten-year-old mind.
But, what I didn’t know, and would no doubt also have found cool, was the fact that the street was the focus of all kinds of supernatural activity. Weird things happened all over the museum, such as the sound of children screaming by the steam trains, but it all centred on that street. A few sources cite the experiences of Bill Mutch, who worked on security in the museum in the 1990s. He appears to have had the lion’s share of weird happenings: one evening, at five o’clock, he was doing the final rounds before locking up for the night. In Kelvin Street, he heard a noise, so yelled out hello. From the empty exhibit, a child’s voice called ‘Hello’ back. Other experiences of Bill’s included seeing apparitions walk through solid walls, a blue wave pass through all the exhibits, hearing voices and footsteps when the museum was empty, and it was him who heard the screaming children by the trains.
Others, both staff and paranormal investigators, encountered strange things. The small cinema in Kelvin Street was the site of regular poltergeist activity, where the cinema seats would flip up and down when no one was near them. The apparition of a headless woman was encountered in the cinema. One local psychic was sitting in there when he saw a man sit nearby wearing a hat and coat. The man appeared soaked through. The psychic went to talk to the man, but he vanished. In the fake underground station, many people felt very unpleasant. These feelings were attributed to an electric box that had originally been in use in the old Merkland Street station. This was allegedly the site of a rather nasty suicide in the 1950s. During an investigation, a spirit apparently communicated with the team by increasing the temperature for yes and lowering it for no.
In the street itself, staff saw the apparition of a man sitting in one of the parked cars. The aforementioned Bill Mutch saw the ghost of another man in a trilby stand outside one of the shop fronts. He also saw strange balls of light in the street, and heard the sound of a man limping, dragging one foot on the ground. In a maintenance section of the museum, closed off to the public, staff reported bizarre things. There would be cold spots, shadowy objects moving around and during their investigation, the Ghost Club, noticed a door seemingly opened by itself. This section was once the backstage area for a circus based at Kelvin Hall. Geoff Holder states that phenomena seem tied into the building’s past. For instance, during the Clydebank Blitz of 1941, it was used as a makeshift morgue. And some of the exhibits had perhaps brought something with them.
Now all that is gone, moved over to the Riverside Museum, as it has been rechristened. A few have wondered what has become of the ghosts. Did they move too, to wander round not one, but several new mock up streets in the new museum? Or do they just walk about the empty space left behind in Kelvin Hall?
The last place on our itinerary is the Scotland Street School Museum, further along the subway line from the previous locations. This museum, detailing the history of education in Scotland since 1872, when free education became compulsory in Britain, started life as an actual school serving the bustling Tradeston and Kingston districts of Glasgow. The building was designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the incredibly famous architect, and built between 1903 and 1906. It was a bone of contention between Rennie Mackintosh and the dour high heided yins of the Glasgow District School Board. The project was impressively over budget, and the design a wee bit fancy for the authorities. They normally threw up relatively dull, functional edifices for the teaching of the city’s young. Rennie Mackintosh designed a stunning building based on Rowallen Castle. A few changes were made here and there, but he stuck to his guns. It’s quite the sight to behold when walking up to. I’d have loved to have been taught in a school like that, as opposed to the 1960s monstrosities that ‘blessed’ the educational landscape the length and breadth of Scotland.
When it was first opened as a primary school, there was room for 1,250 pupils. However, thanks to urban decay, the school roll fell to less than 100 in 1979. That we can no doubt blame on the collapse of heavy industry which employed much of the Kingston and Tradeston populace, the construction of the M8 motorway and the slum clearances of the 1950’s on. Nowadays, the bits of Kingston and Tradeston that aren’t spanned by motorway are now dull as ditchwater industrial estates, the sort of thing that withers the soul. That is, of course, you’re in the market to join one of the many tool shops in the area with, oh, another tool shop.
The Scotland Street School Museum sits amongst it, Rennie Mackintosh’s cheeky reminder that functional doesn’t mean dull. And on entering the museum, as dad and I did shortly after it opened one morning, I was also reminded that the area one teemed with a variety of lives far removed from the humdrum existence of a non-descript industrial estate. There were hardly any other visitors in the museum, but there was a slight tinge in the air, as if there was a small crowd zipping about. It seems to be the sensation you get in any place that hosts a large number of ghosts. And Scotland St School Museum certainly isn’t short of them. Though, at the time of our visit, they were somewhat reluctant, and indeed unwelcoming of a psychic in their midst (in the middle of their lessons perhaps?), the ghosts of Scotland Street haven’t been so shy for others later in the day.
There has been a lot of paranormal activity in the museum. Apparitions have been seen on the top floors and in the audiovisual room, where dad seemed to pause for a bit. One staff member was badly shaken up after encountering a ghost. There are cold spots that don’t go away, whether it’s summer, or the heating is cranked up during winter. Footsteps and children’s voices have been heard when there’s no one around. Tom Rannachan, the Scottish psychic saw the apparition of an old-fashioned female teacher. In the cookery rooms, things move by themselves. So enough to attract no less than the Ghost Club to conduct two investigations, each a year apart in October 2007 and October 2008, respectively.
These were quite lively, with a large number of spirits encountered by the teams. During the 2007 investigation, a young girl aged eight called Bridget Reilly was detected a number of times, apparently following the groups about. A number of departed teaching and general school staff were encountered – a strict man patrolling the top corridor, a genial former cooking teacher named Elsie, who was quite effective at her job, and the ghost of a small dog running about. The investigation the following year was no less active, with more staff and former pupils coming through the ether. In the cloakroom, children aged about eight were sensed. An incidence of school discipline in 1930 replayed itself, when the ghost of a small boy was seen running into a teacher in a corridor. The boy seemed to have been caught in the girls’ cloakroom for some reason, and was given a stout clout by the teacher.
Another stern character with military connections wanting to be called ‘sir’ was sensed in the ground floor corridor. A friendlier teacher, giving the name Mr Davidson was encountered – it transpired a Mr Davidson was headmaster at the school in its early years.  Lots of inexplicable phenomena occurred. Whilst a team was on the ground floor, the sound of lots of footsteps on the floor immediately above sent the lead investigator racing upstairs, but found the floor was empty, and other investigative teams where elsewhere in the building. Plenty of shadow figures were seen and the ringing of the old school bell got the response of children giggling and shadows moving.  In the summing up of the 2007 investigation, it’s concluded that there is probably a lot of residual haunting on the go, quite common in busy places like schools and hospitals.
If you ever visit a Glasgow museum, it might be wise to bring your Spiritvox – the ghosts probably have far more interesting tales to tell than the flesh and blood tour guides…
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