Glasgow: The People’s Palace

Merry belated Christmas everybody! I don’t have anything particularly Christmassy to post about this year, so I’ll just carry on with Glasgow. Looking back on it, we probably should have devoted a good few hours to the Kelvingrove, and slipped in the People’s Palace if and when we had time. But Marcus wanted to see Billy Connolly’s banana boots, and since the museum doesn’t have its own website, we didn’t have any idea what other treasures might be hiding away in there, so the People’s Palace became a priority. It is located in Glasgow Green, about a mile walk away from where we were staying in the centre of Glasgow, and it was very cold that day, so I was definitely not enjoying the walk.

  

I did, however, enjoy the sight of the Doulton Fountain, which we spotted from quite a distance away. This fabulous piece is apparently the largest terracotta fountain in the world, and was built in 1887 for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee and the International Exposition held in Glasgow. It celebrates the British Empire and contains figures representing Canada, South Africa, Australia, and India (I particularly enjoyed the Canadian moose, and what I think was a marmot). I’m no fan of empire, but I am definitely a fan of this fountain.

  

From there, we progressed inside the museum, which like every museum we visited in Glasgow, had these great wooden revolving doors at the entrance (and a giant ornate radiator right by the entry, which I needed to warm my legs after the walk there). The People’s Palace is free (with a name like People’s Palace, it would have been a little disappointing if it wasn’t), and since there was no front desk and we were a little unsure where the museum began, we went directly up the steps in front of us. It turns out we missed an introductory gallery on the ground floor, which we saw at the end instead (yes, the big welcome sign should have been a clue, but I swear we couldn’t see it from the entrance), but it was a very basic overview of Glasgow’s history and the exploits of the Scottish boxer Benny Lynch, who died at the age of 33 in 1946 from alcoholism.

 

So it didn’t really matter that we started with the first floor, and in fact, it meant that we saw Billy’s banana boots first thing (I mostly know Billy Connolly from that Columbo where he’s the murderer (not really a spoiler since the whole point of Columbo is that you see who did it at the beginning), but I don’t think I’ve ever sat there and watched one of his comedy routines, so the banana boots were a bit lost on me. That said, there was a video with Billy Connolly doing that very routine right next to the boots, so I definitely could have watched it then and there had I been so inclined). There was also Rab C. Nesbitt’s string vest, which Marcus was also excited to see.

  

The rest of the floor was given over to moments from Glasgow’s social history, so there was a section on crime and punishment (which I of course enjoyed, though it wasn’t very grisly). The gallows were located not far from the museum building, so there was a sign on the window telling us that this view was more or less the last thing condemned criminals would see. I was rather shocked by the sort-of game where you had to decide whether or not someone should receive the death penalty for various crimes, and then lift the flaps to see what other people answered (although most of the flaps were broken, so I could see their responses from the start) because most of the respondents were very very pro-death penalty, and since Britain abolished the death penalty in 1965, I didn’t realise so many people still felt this way. Yikes. Then again, it wasn’t clear who was surveyed or when the survey was done – the board kind of looked old enough to have been there since the ’60s!

  

There was also a small area on a famous dance hall in Glasgow, a few bits about visiting the seaside, and a section in the back about going to the “Steamie,” which was the Glaswegian term for the public washhouses (and not, as I thought, a bizarre sexual act along the lines of a Cleveland Steamer), and was where woman would meet to do their laundry and, most importantly, gossip. There was also a little bit of information about the World Wars (I liked the display that followed the story of a Glasgow couple who lived through the First World War, as their letters to each other were rather sweet, and the husband’s life was saved by a drill book he took from a German soldier as a souvenir, which was on display here), and a re-creation of an old dairy, although you couldn’t actually touch anything inside, and there were no authentic smells or anything, so it wasn’t really that exciting.

  

The appearance of this floor was very child-friendly, which was initially a bit off-putting, as I wasn’t sure whether we had accidentally wandered into the children’s section. The whole museum was like this though, so I’m pretty sure it was meant to be open to everyone. Aside from this, things did look a little bit run-down and in need of an update – some of the interactive bits had flaps broken off, as I mentioned earlier, and the signage looked a little grubby in places.

  

The second floor was similarly a little bit tired looking, though some of the displays appeared to be done more recently than the ones downstairs. One of the galleries was completely empty, but another contained information about political life in Glasgow, including labour movements and the like, and a handful of artefacts. The other gallery was about everyday life for Glaswegians, with small re-creations of a bathroom and teeny flat (which actually looked quite cosy if you had it to yourself, rather than sharing it with like ten people like most people had to (there was a report about 15 people living in a 6 metre square room in Victorian times). I mean, the bed was in a little nook, and you had your chamber pot right there, so you didn’t even have to get up if you didn’t want to). Glasgow had the highest population density of any city in Victorian Britain (worse than London’s even), and many people were forced to live in slums and appalling conditions.

  

On a cheerier note, there was also information about things people did for fun, like clothes, magazines, and music, and there was even an example of a best-selling product from Ann Summers in the 1990s – an alligator “pouch” for men. I also really enjoyed the little dollhouse showing the ways buildings were divided up into flats throughout the 20th century, though I wish it wasn’t quite so difficult to see inside.

  

Once we headed back downstairs, we had to wander over to the Winter Gardens, which we had already had a lovely view of from various places inside the museum. It is a large glasshouse tacked onto the side of the museum where people can presumably sit in the winter and enjoy loads of lovely plants. There is a cafe in there, but we had earlier purchased some doughnuts from Tantrum Doughnuts that we sat down on a bench to eat (a bit too bready for my tastes, but most British doughnuts are), and it was warm and fairly peaceful (or it would have been if not for all the children running through). I also loved the Shakespeare tiles lining the bathrooms!

  

The People’s Palace has a lot of potential, I think, but most of the displays just felt tired, and I think a social history museum needs more in it, as it only covered very specific aspects of Glasgow history, rather than presenting an overview of the city’s history and its people, which, as someone who had never been to Glasgow before, I would have preferred. However, I have learned in the course of researching this post that the Winter Gardens are set to close indefinitely at the end of this year for major renovations, and potentially the People’s Palace with them, unless they can find a way to make structural repairs independently to each structure. So I’ll give it 2.5/5 in its current state, but changes are clearly afoot, hopefully for the better, but knowing how these things work, I won’t get my hopes up (and do check first if you want to visit from January 2019 onward, since it appears they may not even be open!). Even though I didn’t love this museum, I do hope it is able to remain a museum in the future, because museums are so vital to the culture of a city, and it would be a shame to lose this one entirely.

This building opposite the museum used to be a carpet factory, but now houses a German brewery, as I found out later when I had one of their beers at a pub.

9 comments

  1. I think of the People’s Palace as telling Glaswegians their own story so maybe it’s not that interesting to others. I agree it’s tired, it hasn’t changed for years. It was a show piece at one time but political shenanigans meant they lost a brilliant social history curator in the 90s (Elspeth King) and it’s not been the same since IMHO. Did you see the memorial to Sister Smudge, the only feline trade union member? It’s outside one of the entrances to the Winter Gardens.

    The renovation problem is that the PP fire exit leads into the Winter Gardens and the Victorian glasswork needs replaced in it. So “all” they have to do is create a new fire exit to keep the PP open while that’s done. The Doulton Fountain used to be further towards town and very delapidated so they cleaned it up and moved it a few years ago (2005 – just looked it up. Longer ago than I thought!) Kelvingrove shut for two years c 2006 for a refurb and the Burrell is currently closed for the same reason, so maybe the PP’s turn will come.

    1. I missed Sister Smudge! What a shame! 😦 If it’s a listed building, I imagine creating a new fire exit won’t be that simple! I’ve been trying to find a way to get more accessible doors for the museum I work at, but because it’s a listed building, it’s not going to be cheap or easy!

      1. I know. Didn’t stop hysterical coverage about closing it though – mainly prompted by the party who had held the council for decades till last year castigating the current council. I don’t think these problems suddenly appeared in the last 18 months.

  2. Nice post. I concur with what Anabel says about the People’s Palace, fine place it undoubtedly is. I only noticed the Shakespeare tiles for the first time when I was there a few weeks ago. Some of the bits upstairs about housing and politics have been updated recently, I think, including a small case about Mary Barbour, but it could definitely do with an overhaul. I do like the comedy video including Rab C., Billy Connolly and the rest.

    1. Thanks Kev! Yes, some parts were obviously more modern than others, but my impression overall was that it was a bit tired. I quite like that sort of thing in natural history or even local history museums, but I guess I expect social history to be a bit more dynamic!

      1. You’re right. Social history dates incredibly quickly. I remember being in a local history museum not too long ago and ‘the present’ was 1990!

  3. Oh, I hope this one can hold on – it looks like such a lovely building and sounds like it has so much potential.
    And that phenomenal fountain! I’m not a fan of empire either but I have to admit I did feel my Canadian pride surge when I saw the Canada portion. I love the moose too and that adorable marmot-like guy – though I think he might be a beaver (though a kind of oddly shaped one). Beavers are on everything here – much to my ex’s amusement. He’s from Chicago and he’s never gotten used to it. One place in particular, called Beaver Cleaners, cracked him up every time.

    1. Well, I bow to your knowledge on all things Canadian. Beaver it is! Actually, I had you in mind when I included the Canadian one instead of the Australian one, which I think had an ostrich and some sheep on it, instead, you know, a native animal like a kangaroo.
      Beaver Cleaners is hilarious.

      1. Aw, thank you for that! As much as I’d have been content seeing the Australian bit, I’m so happy you posted the Canadian one. 🙂

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