Glasgow's Cabinet of Curiosities
I was due to be in Glasgow on Thursday evening, giving a lecture at the University on Roman jokes. A few weeks ago I reaIised that I had messed up. I was also due to be in London at 8.00 am on Friday morning, talking about Pompeii at the Classics Breakfast Club at Godolphin and Latymer School. This Club is a wonderful little institution which brings together sixth-formers, teachers, parents and members of the local community for a weekly dose of the ancient world, every Friday.
I spent a red-faced, guilty few hours thinking that I would probably have to let the Breakfast Club down (the Glasgow gig was a one off,I calculated, the Club a weekly event – there would surely be another time). But then I remembered that there might be a sleeper train. And sure enough there was. You can leave Glasgow at 11.40 in the evening, after a nice dinner, and chug into London Euston before 7.00 am the next morning. That gives plenty of time to get over to Hammersmith for breakfast. Problem solved, minus the red face.
So, on Thursday at 8.00 am I caught the train to Peterborough, to pick up the express to Glasgow. It turned out to be a dream of a journey, with free wi-fi throughout and plenty of table space. A mobile office in other words – where I got on with the industrial quantities of marking I had to do, in an uninterrupted 5 hours. (Though recent reports suggest that the days of being able to get any food and drink on these National Express trains are numbered . . . 5 hours without a bite?!)
My terrible confession is that, in all my 54 years, I have never once been to Glasgow before (in fact much of Scotland has been a no go zone for me – though a series of lectures in Aberdeen in the autumn looks set to fix that). So when I discovered that I had over an hour between getting to the Faculty of Arts and having to start the lecture preliminaries, I decided I had to see something.
Many of Glasgow’s high-spots seemed too far away. But just on the doorstep was the University’s Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery.
The Art Gallery was my first stop, because I wanted to see the Whistler paintings. They have a collection of over 80 of his oil paintings, plus many more drawings and etchings – bequeathed to the University by Whistler’s sister-in-law. The full-length portraits of women were just amazing – and nearly enough for the afternoon, I thought.
But then I thought that it was stupid to come all that way and not see the Museum as well, so I crossed the road to the other half of the collection. Thanks heavens I did.
Like the Art Gallery, the nucleus of this is the collection of the eighteenth-century scientist, medic and antiquarian William Hunter. Hunter’s original museum building has long been demolished, and the current display is in its nineteenth-century home – on the fourth floor of a university building.
It has only recently been revamped – and it is one of the most imaginative and beautiful of any contemporary museum installation I’ve seen. (I’ve often thought of having a mini-series within this blog, featuring ‘great museums that you might not know’ – but never quite got round to it. This Museum would certainly be in that top-ten.)
What the designers have done so brilliantly (and the photos in this post hardly capture it) is keep the feeling of an old cabinet of curiosities, but redisplayed with an entirely modern feel. It has the same mixture of strange objects of different periods, the same odd juxtapositions and the same spotlighting of ‘curious’ pieces (I was especially taken with the piece of the tree under which Dr Livingstone’s heart had been buried.) But in the new Hunterian, that’s all done with up to the minute technologies, lighting and Perspex – so you can actually see the stuff as well. Brilliant.
I got back in time to do the lecture, have a wonderful dinner (no alcohol for Beard who is on her Lenten abstinent regime) and reach the train soon after 11.00. The sleeper doesn’t have quite the romantic feel of the old continental Wagon Lits, but since I have ‘form’ on those I wasn’t too disappointed. And there was no wi-fi for late night web-surfers and e-mailers. But I had a nice single berth, and a wake-up call with a cup of coffee (breakfast too if you wanted it) when I chose. There was a ‘lounge’ for those who fancied a Scotch – but I thought that might be too much of a temptation.
It was wonderfully easy to sleep – partly, I think, because the train went very sedately for the first few hours and only speeded up when we were an hour or so from Euston.
When I got out and caught a cab to Hammersmith, the cab driver told me that he’s once picked up one of the sleeper train drivers, who had been doing the run for 30 years, sleeping during the day in a hotel near King’s Cross.
Anyway the end of the story is that I got to school well in time, and we had a great hour or so (well I thought it was great -- hope the Club did) talking about Pompeii. And here in the pic is the proof – it’s MB about to spout!.