Hello, and welcome to Glasgow City Heritage Trust podcast, “If Glasgow’s Walls Could Talk” a new series about the relationships, stories and shared memories that exist between Glasgow historic buildings and people.
Hello, I’m Niall Murphy and welcome to “If Glasgow’s Walls Could Talk”, a podcast by Glasgow City Heritage Trust about the stories and relationships between historic buildings and people in Glasgow. Today we’re talking about Glasgow and slavery and about buildings and streets in our city named after tobacco merchants and slave traders. In particular, we will focus on one building that was built with the wealth coming from the work of enslaved people.
From the 1700s until the UK abolished slavery in 1833, Glasgow merchants made fortunes from trading tobacco, sugar, rum and cotton produced on plantations or in factories by slaves that they owned. Historians have recorded 19 slave voyages, leaving Greenock and Port Glasgow in the six decades between 1706 and 1766, carrying roughly 3000 people into slavery. Now, there is an area associated with slavery within Glasgow, it is the streets of what we now call the Merchant City, which is really the first and second new towns of Glasgow. So these streets gradually extended away from the more ancient heart of the city around Trongate through the course of the 18th century.
The resulting Glasgow grid of streets was where the merchants who shipped tobacco, sugar and tea, had their warehouses and dwellings. From 1740 to 1790, Glasgow became the hub of the world’s tobacco trade. At times trading more than all the English ports, including London put together, the trade was hugely profitable, and the newly rich merchants were known as the tobacco lords.
Their names are immortalised in numerous Glasgow streets. So for instance, Glassford Street is named after John Glassford of Dougalston and Whitehill, who owned tobacco plantations in Virginia and Maryland. Cochrane Street is named after Andrew Cochrane of Brighouse, Dunlop street is named after Colin Dunlop of Carmyle, Ingram street is named after Archibald Ingram, who was also Lord Provost and Dean of Guild, or Onswald Street, which was named after the Oswald family whose members include the notorious Richard Oswald, who had plantations in the Caribbean, Florida, and most famously on Bunce Island and Sierra Leone, where he would dress his slaves on its golf course in tartan.
So just to show you how linked up all of this is, if you look at say Virginia Street, which was named after the American colony, just off it you have the sight of what is now the sadly lost Tobacco Exchange where sugar and tobacco were bought and sold during the 18th and 19th century. And a good example of Glasgow’s urbanism is the view down the street was originally terminated by the Virginia mansion, which was built by the tobacco Lord George Buchanan, demolished in 1841. It was rebuilt as the Glasgow and ship bank and is now Corinthian. So even Glasgow’s grid of streets all of this just harks back to the American colonies because that was where they took their form of urbanism from.
So in June 2020, Black Lives Matters demonstrators in Bristol pulled down the statue of the 17th century slave trader Edward Colston, this controversial act started a national debate about statues and street names associated with slavery across the country, and whether these statues should be taken down and the streets renamed, well, this debate is still ongoing. It does highlight a need to look again at our history and cast light on uncomfortable facts, particularly when thinking about neglected or untold histories.
In that regard, arguably the most famous building in Glasgow with links to slavery is Gallery of Modern Art and Royal Exchange Square, GoMA was originally the Cunninghame mansion, owned by tobacco Lord William Cunninghame of Lainshaw. Cunninghame was an astute businessman who made his fortune from trading tobacco and sugar, and was deeply linked with slavery.
In 1780 Cunninghame spent 10,000 pounds constructing his mansion, this is roughly around 1.5 million pounds today. So in 1817, the mansion was then purchased by the Royal Bank of Scotland, and was initially used as their Glasgow headquarters, 10 years later, the bank sold it to a consortium led by James Ewing of Strathleven .
Now he’s quite interesting too, because even though he was heavily involved in the whole kind of range of initiatives in Glasgow, things like setting up the Necropolis, he was also the owner of 586 slaves on five plantations in Jamaica, and he received over 9000 pounds in compensation from the British Government for the loss of his property, ie his slaves, on the back of the 1833 Act. So and it was he who commissioned architect David Hamilton to transform and extend the mansion into the Royal Exchange of Glasgow.
Glasgow Corporation acquired the building in 1949 moving Stirling’s library from nearby Miller Street into the former exchange. And then later in 1996, the building was converted to house the Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art with a mural of the Glasgow coat of arms by artists Niki de Saint Phalle over the entrance. So this beautiful neoclassical building has been a home, a bank, an exchange and a library before its current use as a gallery. So it’s a great example of that to reuse within the city. So our guest today is Katie Bruce, producer and curator at GoMA, where she is responsible for GoMA’s exhibition and public programme and contemporary art acquisitions for Glasgow Museums.
Katie has worked at GoMA since September 2002, and has an expanded curatorial practice working primarily with socially engaged artists. At the end of July 2017, the Gallery of Modern Art unveiled a permanent display called “Stones steeped in history” that tells the story of the building from before it was built in 1776. Through its various uses, and modifications, as described on GoMA’s website. “Stones steeped in history” allows us to tell the story of the building through times of great wealth and from international trade, with undeniable links to slavery to being one of the city’s first telephone exchanges. And onto Glasgow’s rise as a centre for arts and culture. So Katie, welcome to the podcast.
Thank you very much. That’s quite an introduction.
So well, we’re glad to have you on board. So we have a number of questions for you. So first off, do you think it is easier to interpret objects and works of art related to slavery than buildings?
I think, like everything, it really does depend on what, on what you have, and what you have access to. I think one of the things that we’ve kind of talked about for a number of years within Glasgow Museums is objects that directly relate to the history of slavery that we felt were were quite obvious to visitors, we didn’t have as many of and our buildings were, at that point, particularly GoMA, one of the most visible direct connections to Glasgow’s history of slavery.
So I suppose that then started the conversations around about “Stones steeped in history”, but it had also been referred to really briefly within the opening publication for GoMA, and in notes that we had about the building that our visitor assistants would talk to visitors about.
I think in some ways, objects are easier because you expect an object to have a label next to it. So for audiences coming in, they look for that information with buildings in the city. We don’t expect to find the label telling you the history of every single building in the city around about it. So I suppose people do their own searching or find out their own ways of looking at it.
Sure, I can see where you’re coming from there. I similarly, I’ve been working with Glasgow City Council, on a conservation management plan for George Square. And that was one of the things that kind of leapt out at me, though, that the interpretations for the statues is, it’s pretty much non existent. I mean, there’s a plaque saying who the sculptor was, and who the subject is. And that’s it. You know, it’s up to you to go and find that. And I think things like that could possibly be teased out a bit better around the city, and then maybe maybe go as part of that. I don’t know. Okay, so we move on to our next question. Which is – do you think that acknowledgement or perception of slavery has changed after the Black Lives Matter protests?
I think so. I mean, like I was saying earlier, the conversations, were there in museums for quite a number of years. And you know, it led to us doing “Stones steeped in history”. There are wider kind of conversations that happened across Glasgow Museums.
We’d also been involved in the 2007 programme that was around the commemoration of the abolition of slavery. So I think internally, the conversations should have been there, but I suppose after the Black Lives Matter protests, the types of conversation changed.
I think there’s always been a conservative approach to acknowledgement, sort of relying I suppose a lot on what was there or not necessarily understanding. How much we actually had in our collections. And I guess also, within the city, how evident it was, you know, I suppose what a lot of the discussion is now about how it’s kind of been whitewashed of over time, and that we’ve actually forgotten.
A lot of, you know, when you read out all the names of the streets, they’ve just become synonymous with streets in Glasgow, they’ve not necessarily been connected to the plantation owners and the slave owners that they’re named after. So those histories have all kind of disappeared. And you know, and you’re saying, about the conversation in George Square, I go past it so many times, I was teenager in the city, but I couldn’t really have told you any of the stories about any of the people that are recognised there, apart from the really obvious ones. And I think having done the tour there recently, you’re told about the names and it goes in. So I suppose how visible these histories are, since Black Lives Matter protest. And the way that we talk about it, and the way that we have to talk about it, I think there was kind of, there’s subtle references throughout time, but it was just a nod to it, it wasn’t really acknowledged in the same way that I feel that we’re being asked to and held to account to within the city.
Sure, no, I can completely appreciate that. It’s funny, because it’s something that we, we started looking at a couple of years ago, and it was very much on the back. I mean, having, you know, knowing something about the history of George Square, knowing something about the kind of the, the hidden histories of some of the stories behind some of the monuments within the square. I was very conscious of when the whole debate over the Confederacy monuments in the United States kicked off. And so we organise the city talk on the back of that, and that was quite interesting. It was like challenging, you know, how do we deal with these issues in Glasgow, and it was funny that happened about when was it? Sort of early 2019. That would been something I’d been planning for a whole year before that. And it was interesting to hear people’s responses to that, because I was acutely conscious by that point that this was something that we were going to have to tackle. And I was, you know, had been speaking to various people like Dr. Stephen Mullen, and Councillor Graham Campbell, and people like that. So I was acutely conscious of it. So it was interesting to hear what they had to say about issues like that, and begin to think, you know, how, how could we tackle this part of Glasgow story of which I think is incredibly important. Because I think you have to be honest about these things. And it’s kind of a truth and reconciliation thing.
And it’s about how you tease that out properly and tell the full story and all its richness. And it means that, you know, there are going to be negative aspects that you will have to bring out and we will have to confront as a society, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. I think you can grow from something like that. Okay, moving on. The next question is, are people more curious, and more ready to know about these issues? Is that something that you’re, you’re finding?
I think, particularly within GoMA, people were asking us about the history of the building, it is a kind of uniquely beautiful building. And that, you know, you described it, moved from a house to Royal Exchange, to a gallery. So it’s had various additions at various points in its lifetime. And so I think visitors that we’ve had over the number of years, have asked about it, because it’s not a straightforward, modern contemporary art gallery. In lots of ways, it’s, it’s got quite an odd way of going around it.
So I think from an architectural point of view, people were interested. And then when you delve deeper thinking about uses of a building, layers of history, layers of ghosts that, you know, are kind of, in our walls. And I guess, you know, more and more the rise of social media and people can easily circulate past images of the city. So you see it in, in times before and we’re also able to do that. So I think there was a genuine curiosity, about it, and the history and I think also artists that we’ve worked with, definitely, in my experience over the last few years, they’ve looked into different histories of the building from their perspective.
So Aleksandra Domanović which in 2014, was really interested in the notion of the telephone exchange. Other artists more recently, like Camara Taylor have looked into the connections to Empire, and others as well. So I think you know, that complex history is, is, is of interest and I think also within the city, the connections to Empire and slavery.
I mean, there’s been a huge amount of work done over the years by CRER and through Black History Month. I think that it started, that it started, to raise awareness of this in ways and, you know, I suppose, I sort of think that before that, that circulation of social media and being able to find out small things or see, see images of your, your area, or your city in times gone by, that promotes an interest in ways of looking back. And it’s sometimes easier when you can google something and an obscure historical fact comes up at you. So I think, you know, all these things kind of contribute..
It is fascinating, you know, being able to figure out now, thanks to the research that several people, you know, Stephen, Stephen Mullen in particular, have been able to do, to see where, you know, these, these parts of the city buildings, institutions, where they did get their money from and where, where legacies from, from slavery had been left.
And when you look, you look, at the research, and you see who it was that benefited from the kind of 1837 compensation that the British government, you know, handed out on that, and this is what astonishes me, the idea of the loss of property, which was actually people and that the slaves themselves were not compensated and had to take part in the apprentice scheme. And you think, you know, that’s absolutely shocking. And yet, there it is, and there is a record of it. And you can see on interactive maps nowadays, where, where all that is located. And you know, it’s not just Glasgow, there’s, there’s actually more of it in Edinburgh, which is quite fascinating.
So when kind of looking at this, do you think, because we’re having to look at this, you know, not just in Scotland, but nationwide as well? Is there a difference here between Scotland and England, as Scotland has been slower in recognising that, you know, the two had a role within the the slave trade?
Yes, because… I’m by no means an expert on this. But I think, you know, from, from what I understood, the slave trade was acknowledged before, through the ships, it wasn’t necessarily the profits from it. And so when you said earlier, that’s, you know, 17 ships went from Glasgow, although we might have been involved in the shipbuilding for a lot more than those 17 ships that are involved in the slave trade. I think, England because the ports were actively used, and there was an active community, asking questions about that direct involvement in the trafficking in the Middle Passage, that I think, it’s an interesting one, because I think that then became the conversation rather than what you know, what your, what we now talk about is the legacy of empire and slavery in very different ways. And, you know, still, I suppose, pre 2007, when we started to look more at slavery, and the abolition of it, which was not the ending of it. The recognition of what actually happened in Glasgow came through, but also how broad the impact of empire and slavery it is, was, still is and is ongoing. And so I suppose it’s a far it’s much less of a black and white conversation that I think it was before that meant that Scotland could slightly avoid looking at it, looking at itself, and I think, I should say with reparations?
Yeah, I think so. And I think it’s interesting because, because we are slightly divorced from it, which is part of the problem. So what you find is, because Glasgow is rolling the actual, the ships and, and you know, the ships actually took slaves from here, across the Atlantic is actually relatively limited compared to Liverpool and Bristol. But then when you actually look at Liverpool, you discover that 128 of those captains on those ships were Scots, and you know, that all the various Scottish merchants who are based down there, and that includes people like, like Gladstone, and his Gladstone father, you know, was in it up to his neck in British Guiana. And Gladstone when he first gets into parliament, is actually one of the people who argues against the kind of the abolition of slavery, based on the fact that his father given his links to the West Indies Association, is one of the key players in all of this. And it’s Gladstone who sits and works out and they actually had this handwritten notes for this, the compensation that his father is due and what, why this, where the Scottish connection comes from is his, his father was from Leith. So you know, they were Scots, and it’s again, we were in up to our necks in it.
A couple of years ago, I was investigating the architect Henry Edward Clifford, who’s a very good Glasgow Style architect and he is one of the people who helped train Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his, he actually came from Trinidad. And when you look back at his father, his father was one of the people who was compensated in 1837. And so his father had at that point, he just had two slaves, but still, you know, that was that was in the background. And when I, when I talk about him, I talk about the shock, it must have been having, you know, having had this, this childhood in the tropics, and then coming over to the UK and how very different It must have been coming to Glasgow, how cold Glasgow must have been, but he obviously harks back to his childhood, because later on in his life, when he retired, the house that he built himself when he retired, was named after the family’s plantation in Trinidad. So obviously had fond recollections of it. And yet, he was immersed in what was a slave society at that time. So you know, very, very interesting. So.
Okay, moving on, again, do you think is possible to correctly interpret and highlight the history of a building? So this is something we’ve been touching on in our conversation, do you think that it’s possible, particularly when, you know, a building has such a dark history? And how do you make sure you’re giving the space to the right voices within that?
it’s something that we’ve discussed quite a bit, and “Stones steeped in history” was a start for it in a public space, because I think you have to be quite sensitive to the visitors coming in to the building.
I mean, we share a lot with our art, and we think about our audiences all the time. And I guess what we wanted to be careful was that we weren’t putting people in a triggering situation for their own experience, or their own background from something that they come in, in the gallery was that, at least as an originally set up was an escape from the city into this other space. And so you know, a lot of visitors will visit us as a contemporary art space, and then having this, this history there. So I suppose, being very mindful of how the language that we use to discuss in spaces where there’s not necessarily staff there to give you a broader space to talk about this, or, you know, you might be coming with people with different experiences. And so I think, it’s not the easiest to do.
But I suppose we go through layers of editing in order to get that in the public space. But I suppose what we then do is use other spaces, which are online and available. So like our blog, and we have a handling kit, as well, that has objects from Glasgow Museums’ collection, that means that if our staff, like in lockdown, when we’re able to do a Sunday afternoon, with a handling kit, it meant that we could, our staff could talk to visitors about the more difficult aspects of the history through that, with objects in place, but also a space where it could be held or, you know, it could be discussed in those ways.
I think, you know, like everything these days, you are really mindful of what spaces you’re creating in your building to discuss difficult subjects where, you know, you’re not necessarily aware of everybody’s experience coming into that, so you want… and also how people leave the building, as well. So I’m also aware of, of being sensitive to the experiences of those that were enslaved. And not putting that on display for others to come in and find out and you know, we’ve done a lot of work around social justice. And there is a feeling on a lot of people that they have to explain every nuance aspect of their lives in order to inform others in order to gain empathy. And it feels like a lot of labour involved in that.
So you know, when we’re working with artists, when we’re working with people, and you know, and we’re thinking about audiences coming in as well, you’re trying not to overwhelm people with certain experiences in a space that makes it really uncomfortable for them to be in a building that is already loaded with history that has asked them not to be here.
So I think that you know, there’s lots, lots of things that we’re thinking about so you know, like when you say it’s not necessary, there’s, there’s a route that you can go down that I think in some ways “Stones steeped in history” does. So it looks at the facts. We worked with our social and our history, Scottish history curator, Tony, to look at the research and the facts and so that we put that further, we put that into the, into the space.
And I suppose some of the other works that we have in the building through the artworks refer to the building’s history, but some of them are more oblique, and some of them allow for a space for the audience’s to bring their own experiences, and to then be, I suppose, interested to go and look elsewhere or feel some kind of connection to the stories that the artists are telling through their work. If that, if that kind of helps. I don’t think there’s a straight a straight answer in terms of these things.
No, I can appreciate that. And it is not easy. I’m thinking two instances from, from my own life. I lived in Berlin for a while, a fantastic city. But in the winters, I found it quite a dark city. And quiet, I was always conscious of what had happened in the war.
And there was one particular space, which was an artist space, but it was a huge complex, which was for the Siemens factory, which was in the East. And it was it was this huge cobbled courtyard with these enormous kind of search, like spotlights on it. And walking through that all you could think of was all the people who are gathered for the concentration camps. And you were kind of acutely conscious. I mean, there was nothing there to explain any of that to you with no interpretation whatsoever. But you were thinking that this must be the kind of space where that happened. And that made me feel incredibly uncomfortable.
So you know what you’re talking about in terms of triggering people and being conscious of people’s sensitivities? Absolutely. And on that particular point, where do you think Glasgow is in terms of its journey towards recognising this kind of history and you think there’s still a long road to go?
Yeah, I I think a lot of people would acknowledge it’s fairly early days in recognising this history. There is information out there there are access points out there and but like you say, a lot of us are feeling uncomfortable about things that we’ve taken for granted and easily spoken about in the past to audiences because they were the accepted histories. They were the you know, merchants were in the middle of the Merchant City. It was a, it’s a marketing campaign. We are a world class tourist destination.
Yep. It’s It’s It’s a construct Yep.
It’s a it’s a construct that yes…
James Coleman saying you know, it should not be called that, it should be it should be called the Working Class City.
Yeah, you’ve got all of these stories within you know, a history, a history of a city that is incredibly proud of itself. It’s really difficult to challenge anything about it because it’s talked about its radical roots, its empathy, it’s all of these things but actually you know, I was thinking when you were saying about how, how we talk about things you know, I’m, I’m more East Coast, my family, but you know, you, just my gran, you just have half an aspirin and get on with it. You know, you don’t talk about things you don’t go to trauma you don’t you don’t think about it.
Yeah, so I suppose there is some of those things about you know, when you’re talking about Berlin and a very different approach and trauma but you know, equally you know, like, they were saying in Bristol, we’re putting sites of trauma in front of people and calling and flag waving around and calling our history and not really understanding what that means for, for other people. So I suppose that’s that thing and you know, if it was really easy, and if you know, we were done a lot round about this you know, we’d have done it, it’s not going, it’s not going to be an easy conversation. It’s not at any point. And, you know, there are things that come up in various conversations, you know, from works with two, three years ago, that actually you’re, you are having to rethink or go back and check how the artist feels about things.
No, because everything, lots of conversations are quite fluid, we are being asked really hard, hard questions to not, not just knowledge, but to change and to rethink a lot of our practices, because we’re we’ve centred our, our white experience quite easily into that. But then, you know, and the city has changed our, our relationship to the rest of the world has, has changed. And we need to be mindful of that. And think about how we do that and, and stop centring. So much there. You know, especially when we have a collection within the city that is civic, civic recognised, and it is an international collection, it has incredibly rich histories within it. But they’re all told from our perspective.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah. So I suppose that’s true. And is some, is that something that you’re learning from all these various projects? And, and how you communicate that, then to your audience?
Yeah, I mean, I suppose, you know, the Gallery of Modern Art, it’s part of a family of museums, we have a, you know, a wealth of experience across the whole of Glasgow Museums, and also the partners that we work with in the audiences. So you know, within GoMA, particularly, you know, when I think about the social justice work, and the way that we acquired work in the beginning, and how we spoke about what we did, that that is changing, that learns, that learns, you learn as you go along, and I suppose I’ve been there 18 years now working with colleagues, and you introduce me, as the curator of all programmes and all acquisitions, I am not, I work together with a wonderful set of colleagues that that work with me. I know for those times, you know, I’ve, I’ve kept up, I’m at the same desk, I’m in the same job as I’ve been for 18 years, because there are, you know, there are new partners that we work with new communities, new artists, new people, every time that ask difficult questions of what we assume, or what we have done, and move it forward.
So I think, yeah, and I think we do have, we do listen to our audiences and our audiences, I think, are, have changed. I think going back to what you’re saying about Black Lives Matter, you know, there were questions coming in, especially after we put out a message of solidarity around with the Black Lives Matter protests when George, George Floyd was murdered. And we got asked, Well, where is it? Where is this evidence of this solidarity? This move to change within your organisation on it, and I think that asked, you know, internally, you think you’re doing quite a lot, but actually how that comes across to the audiences, to the visitors, as presented, as presented that’s maybe not there. And that’s something that we really have to think about. Because you can talk, you can list loads of projects, but if it’s not how people understand or see you, they are not going to engage with you. So I suppose that’s a big learning for us that when we need to keep thinking about and talking to people, and also trying to do an audit to kind of communicate a lot of the internal thinking and, you know, it’s museums.
You know, you said you, you know, you had talks that took a couple of years to get to fruition. Museums are very, very slow. We think it through and it’s not, it’s not because we’re not willing to change, it’s because, she said, you need to let voices permeate through into the discussions because if you stick with a factual or go are only our object records, then that is a past informing how you’re thinking now and it’s not necessarily the multiplicity of voices that that we think should be heard now. So you have you have to let that trickle through, into in into change. And that happens in the museum as well so and that that that takes time. Sometimes.
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it’s not an easy subject and getting people to talk about it is not straightforward. It is sadly all tied up with culture, words and politics. And that, that you know, that too makes people uncomfortable and which, which is unfortunate because you know, and particularly how all this has been presented when you look at what the National Trust has been doing down South and then how that it’s been politicised, which I think is a great shame because it’s actually really fascinating. And, and I think we should look at these issues. And this is most of this comes out in when you look at GoMA, and when you look at people like at William Cunninghame and James Ewan because they use that, that money that they that they gained and and you realise how completely particularly with Cunninghame, he was completely immersed in the culture of the early American colonies and Virginia, because he was based as one of the apprentices at age 15. Up Chesapeake Bay. And that was at the point where in Virginia, where you get over a certain year period of that this, the hundreds of 1000s of slaves are being, are being brought in to, you know, to work on the plantations. And so you know, couldn’t not have been aware of that he could not have been aware of all the suffering.
So in that regard, again, you know, you’ve talked about how artists have responded to that kind of history about about the building. It’ll be interesting to know more about that. How have they done that? And in particular, with exhibitions you hosted?
Yeah, so there’s been various exhibitions over the year. So I suppose going back specifically to 2007. We worked with the artist Graham Fagen who had a long standing interest in Burns, but also an interest in reggae music, and did a body of research about voyages that Burns never took to go to Jamaica to work as a plantation manager. And so that body of work was shown in 2007.
And at the same time, Beth Ford was based off at Saint Mungo museum. And Beth was based in Glasgow at that time, has now moved to London, and is biracial, part Barbadian and part Scottish and she looked into that sort of personal but also, history of enslaved people and looked at the David Livingstone Centre in Blantyre and now complete, completely forgot the name of the work, the, the shadow of the ego? I should have looked that up. But we showed that as part of exhibitions, and that’s that it was kind of a quiet work in 2007. And it’s been shown a couple of times in GoMA since and you know, it’s one of those things that inserted into an exhibition that really asked a lot of questions. And it kind of, it’s a photograph of her wearing a mask, which silences you. So it’s like a metal mask that has a tongue depressor that silences you, that would have been used to keep people quiet. And she made a glass version of this. And so I suppose the fragility of the glass version, and the brutality of the real version within the photograph, are there and ask a lot of very difficult questions of us. In terms of that, and I suppose, talking about the long lens of trauma, through that work at a very, you know, in 2007, and I don’t really think that work was acknowledged at the time for the powerful piece that it is, because those come, it was almost a head of the conversations that we’ve been having in the last few years. And with that, so, you know, those works have been in the collection and shown in an exhibition that I curated and 2017 called “Polygraphs”, and I think I was interested in truths infections at that time, and you know, that started to open up more of, more of the conversations around about the building and its, and its history.
Within the collections that we were doing, and we held a couple of conversations there, so was one of where six queer artists of colour were in, called after dark. So it looked at that 1980s TV programme called “After Dark” on Channel Four, which some, some some of us may remember, some of us may not where, you know, invited guests were in a studio with with, with wine and food, and the conversation went on until it didn’t.
Yes. With booze?
Yes. So, Ajamu asked to do that in GoMa, after dark, when the building was closed with six queer artists of colour. And that conversation was really powerful just about legitimacy, visibility, space and joy. Because I think, you know, when we’re talking about this, it’s still you know, I still feel that, you know, even in this conversation here, we’re talking about it from my perspective as being a white curator within a building loaded with history. And, you know, they talked about it from their perspective and joy and resistance, as well. So you know, some really powerful conversations that actually make me stop and think about what I assume how I, how in my role, there is an easy road to slip into, where I begin to speak for other people or begin to speak for the work in the collection. And whether I, I have the right to do that. And so, you know, the work often will speak for itself, and that, you know, so going back to what we were saying before about, you know, is easy and interpret objects or a work of art, you know, you have to create those spaces for not defining the interpretation, but allowing an audience to interact, engage, and not interpret, but have, have a space.
Just to think about some of the themes that work is talking about directly or obliquely, and I suppose more recently, there was an artist Camara Taylor, and they were involved in that After Dark conversation with Ajamu and we’ve gone on to work with them through project queer time school prints, but also more recently that were commissioned for “Domestic bliss”, which is the exhibition that’s currently opening at GoMA, so that does look at the idea of the home, the house, you know, objects in our collection, and it is through a feminist lens, because it’s meaning that’s curating it. But I was also aware that I’m a white middle class female, looking at the wonderful objects from social history to contemporary art and modern art within our collection, and wanted artists voices in there to disrupt or ask difficult questions of, of the building, of the collection, and potentially me as well.
And Camara had initially one idea for work and then moved it into what’s there now, which is called “Empire of Love”, and it’s a series of Zippo lighters with engravings from James Boswell’s poem, abolition of slavery and power of love. And I suppose it’s one of the things that you know, another of Glasgow’s things is that it prided itself on being abolitionist and in this an abolitionist iJames Knox.
No, it is it James Knox or John Knox painting at Kelvingrove? And this things, and but, you know, there’s a history of Scotland of even in the late 1700s. When you’re thinking it’s on the cusp of change. There’s really vocal voices out there saying it, slavery is fine, we need it, we can’t get rid of it. And so she’s put a literal incendiary device into our collection. You know, it’s a Zippo lighter. And so for her, it’s a really beautiful object that is like..
Like a blue torch paper!
Yes, that’s it, exactly. And so you know, and those are what I find exciting about worth working with artists because they can, they can insert a voice into a space that can ask a lot of questions. It’s not necessary. It doesn’t, it’s not having the answers. It’s just, it’s inserted into a corner cabinet in the exhibition “Domestic Bliss”, which has a Wedgwood tea pot from the middle of the 1700s, which has the Tea Party, which was a famous design there on an earthenware pot, which was where the aspiring middle class would be buying this pot and it has gentrified couples sitting having a cup of tea being served by a young enslaved, black servant. And it’s it’s just there and It has a Glasgow’ Miles Better mug next to it. It has some memorabilia from the Empire Exhibitions. And it has an ashtray from the Shish Mahal. You know all all these little signifiers around the complex histories of Glasgow and then you’ve got “Empire of Love” as six Zippo lighters in there and just asking questions, it’s not, you know, and so different people will, will bring to that and take from it.
Very provocative. Yeah, yeah, it does, it makes makes you realise just how difficult this whole subject is how difficult interpretation is the whole issue with say, the, the, the monument to Melville over in Edinburgh and the plaque for that over recent months. That’s, that’s been fascinating to me, I don’t know whether you ever got a chance to look into that at all, but for the representations, enormous number of representations, just about the wording of it, and whether or not the wording was correct? Or was it the right thing to do? Was it not, and you can see just how polarised it becomes. And yet, it’s something we’re gonna have to tackle somehow. So it’s interesting to learn from, from things like that, and from what you’re up to in GoMA, which I think is really very interesting.
So okay, finally, so bringing all this to conclusion. Now, this is kind of a trick question. But we’re always interested to know this on any of our guests that we have, or people who come to our office as well, we always have to ask them this question. What is your favourite building in Glasgow? And what would it say to you, if its walls could talk? Can you let us know?
I can. This was the hardest question that yet you asked me, and it should be GoMA, and it is in some way. But I was thinking about it. And I think it’s actually the, the station building at Queen’s Park.
And it’s for a couple of reasons. Not necessarily always the obvious ones. I used to get the train to school. And it wasn’t to Queen’s Park, but the building was very, very similar to the Queen’s Park train station building. And as a teenager, you’re hanging there after school waiting for the train in all weathers, all of the different kinds of conversations that happen there, that building is gone and had been replaced by a more ubiquitous train station now, sort of ride through.
But I like it, because it reminds me of times earlier, I think something interesting about trains and journeys. There’s always something interesting about that line, especially if you get stuck on the inner or the outer circle, you go back and start at the same place. And now where I live, in the Southside of Glasgow, it’s on, it’s on the way home. So it’s kind of a signifier of being near home.
But it’s also got the Queen’s Park Railway Club. So it’s, it’s again, its uses have shifted into hosting a programme of exhibitions as well. So sometimes if you get off, you can go and have a different experience, I really like that about it. Yeah. And then also, you know, I just think when you’re at train stations, the conversations that you overhear, so it’s not necessarily you know, and the walls and things that have happened or meetings or goings or moments at train stations. And so yeah, that’s that’s why that’s, that’s there for me.
At the moment, yeah, absolutely know what you mean, I was, I was involved in trying to save Maxwell Park Station, which is kind of a new relation, obviously, of Queen, Queen’s Park. And yeah, similar feelings about that, too. It now has a model train club in it. And that’s on the ground floor. And then the upper floor, that’s the local heritage, Society of cultural heritage, have a little exhibition space up there. So you know, it’s good that these the stations are kind of being, being reused imaginatively, in that way. Because, you know, as you say, some, so many of them were, were swept away. Unnecessarily when you look at the facilities that they, they actually had them, they were incredibly civilised. And that was a real kind of asset for Glasgow and kind of a shame that they have, have disappeared.
That’s that, that that’s really it’s really fascinating that you’d say that. It’s quite quite intriguing. So, listen, thank you very much, Katie. It’s been an absolute pleasure having you on. Really interesting to hear kind of hear your thoughts on on GoMA and the programme that you’re doing there which is, which is really interesting and worthwhile. I can’t wait to get back inside GoMa. It was actually the last museum I visited before lockdown. So I have to get back and visit again. So just thank you very much, once again, a real pleasure. And just to everybody else who’s listening in, if you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to our podcast and share it and you can follow us on #IfGlasgowsWallsCouldTalk.
Thank you very much.
Glasgow City Heritage Trust is an independent charity and grant funder that promotes the understanding, appreciation and conservation of Glasgow’s historic built environment. Do you want to know more? Have a look at our website at glasgowheritage.org.uk and follow us on social media @GlasgowHeritage. This podcast was produced by Inner Ear for Glasgow City Heritage Trust. This podcast is kindly sponsored by the National Trust for Scotland and supported by Tunnock’s.