SHOULD Duncan Dornan, Glasgow Life’s head of museums and collections, ever have a spare moment to stand and stare – highly unlikely, given his busy schedule overseeing the long-awaited reopening of the city’s world-famous Burrell Collection – the building’s East Gallery may well be where one would find him.

“I like the tapestries – they are perhaps my favourite items in the collection,” he says. “The work is so intricate. To see them hanging again is fantastic.”

There are more than 200 grand tapestries and carpets in the Burrell Collection, as well as Chinese pottery and porcelain produced over a 5000-year period, making it one of the most significant collections of Chinese art in Europe; paintings by renowned French artists including Manet, Cézanne and Degas; medieval treasures such as arms and armour; Roman and Egyptian antiquities; sculptures by Rodin; and exquisite stained glass.

It is one of the world’s greatest personal art collections, amassed by Sir William Burrell and his wife Constance over a period of 75 years and given to the city of Glasgow in 1944. In 1983, it finally found a home in a purpose-built museum in Pollok Park. For the last five-and-a-half years, the building has been closed for renovations to the tune of almost £69 million, but on Tuesday the ‘new’ Burrell – refurbished, redesigned and reinvented – finally opens its doors.

The doors, in fact, are a somewhat prickly subject, depending upon who you talk to. There are now three entrances instead of just one. This caused consternation among fans of the original stone archway (which is still there) who do not enjoy the addition of a large, glazed ‘piazza’ and atrium, and separate café entrance. Dornan argues the change was necessary.

“Our aim was to improve physical and intellectual access to the collection,” he explains, on a short tour of the building as final preparations are made before the grand public unveiling.

“Visitor numbers had fallen, and we did a lot of audience research into why that was the case – what were the barriers stopping people coming to the Burrell? One of them was the entranceway. People found it intimidating, and it was a long walk to the galleries and the objects themselves.”

He adds: “You had to walk almost the full length of the building just to get to the café – you could see it, from the park, but you couldn’t get in.”

Other changes include the removal of two of the three ‘Hutton’ rooms, which reproduced interiors from the Burrells’ family home, Hutton Castle in the Borders; and the creation of a new central stairway, allowing visitors to access the lower floor of the building for the first time, where they can watch items not on display being cared for. Similarly, new galleries have been created on the upper floors, giving access to areas never before open to the public.

“The Hutton rooms were not popular with visitors,” explains Dornan, matter-of-factly. “We know Burrell didn’t simply want the city to rebuild his whole house, it was much more subtle than that.

“Interpretation in those rooms was very traditional, and people just weren’t going in. So two of the rooms have now been repurposed – one explains who the Burrells were, and their connection to Glasgow, which is really important.”

He adds: “Without understanding that, the collection doesn’t make sense. William and Constance Burrell were private collectors, buying what they liked, just as any of us would do – albeit with slightly less exotic subject matter.

“Few people went upstairs – the original staircase was narrow and quite dark, and didn’t really look like a public space. Opening it up encourages people to circulate around the building, to understand there are three levels open to visitors.”

There is seating in this area, and films will be shown in the space. “It brings back life to the centre of the building,” adds Dornan.

In total, 225 displays will spread across 24 galleries, displaying 35 per cent more of the collection than before. The displays include innovative digital elements such as video walls, interactive games and hybrid systems created to help people engage with the stories behind the collection

“Digital interpretation adds depth and provides more methods for people to engage with the collection,” says Dornan. Suggestions that the digital offering ‘dumbs down’ the museum misses the point, he explains.

“We all learn in different ways, and films, interactive exhibits, tactile labels – these are all designed to improve access,” he says. “We want everyone to find a way into the collection.”

Public expectations have moved on enormously since the museum opened in 1983, he points out.

“However, the ‘traditional’ museum-goer, who wants an aesthetic experience, can still have that experience – to stand, to look, to get lost in a particular object, that is very powerful,” says Dornan.

“The digital elements at the Burrell are not like those you might find, say, at Riverside, [Glasgow’s transport museum] where it’s all primary colours and loud and bold and in your face. Here it is much more subtle and muted. It has been done in a considered way, so it does not overwhelm the tranquillity of the galleries. The objects remain paramount.”

Conservator Stephanie de Roemer has worked on around 800 of those objects, including Guanyin, Goddess of Mercy, a 12th century statue from the Song Dynasty.

“During the pandemic lockdown, I had all of these lovely sculptures in my workshop and actually, that is when it really hit me,” explains de Roemer. “These sculptures, from ancient civilisations, are all about the human condition – suffering, anxiety, grief – everything that was unfolding around us during Covid.

“As everything shut down, and we could no longer go into work and meet people, it made me think about how timeless these things are.”

De Roemer is originally from Osnabrück in Germany where she left school unsure of what she wanted to do but very clear about what she did not.

“I did not want to be what my parents wanted me to be, which was a banker,” she smiles. “I remember at a job interview, putting all sorts of details about myself and my hobbies into a computer which would tell you what career you should do.”

She smiles: “For me, it suggested conservator. I didn’t know what that was, but it sounded super-interesting, so I looked into how to go about doing it.”

After studying art history and then classical architecture and anthropology, De Roemer came to the UK to study conservation, and ended up working for Glasgow Life via a Masters degree at Durham University.

“I always thought conservation was about objects, but it’s really about people,” she says. “Every object brings you into contact with people from the past – those who made it, used it, collected it. I feel like we are the doctors, or carers, of cultural heritage.

“I think what Glasgow has done with the Burrell is very clever. Six years ago, with the leaking roof, the problems with the building, and the visitor numbers falling, it was obvious something needed to be done. Rather than going for a patchwork approach, the decision to completely close and rebuild was taken. That must have been scary, but it was the best thing.”

The biggest challenge in caring for a collection like the Burrell is, de Roemer says, the ‘conservator’s dilemma.’

“We are the ‘object police, the ‘do not touch’ brigade,” she jokes. “We want the ideal ‘black box’ scenario – no light, in a vacuum, completely protected 365 days a year, everything lasts forever.”

She pauses. “But of course, no-one will ever see it,” she adds. “William Burrell wanted his collection to be seen, so our job is to balance access and protection.

“The Burrell renaissance brings it back to people – not just those who made and sold and bought the objects, but the people of Glasgow.

“The community engagement work, watching people take ownership of the museum, has been lovely, and showing the stores, where people work on the objects behind the scenes, is great.

“For me, Glasgow is being really progressive by being so open – it allows people to engage with the objects on a human level.”

De Roemer smiles: “It’s exciting, now that we are about reopen – that’s when these objects come alive.”

Project curator Laura Bauld has “lived and breathed” every aspect of the Burrell Collection since she included research on William Burrell in her final year dissertation in art history at Glasgow University.

“I used to volunteer at Pollok House, helping to run school tours, and I got to know Pollok Park really well,” she explains. “I’d look at the Burrell and think – that must be an amazing place to work.

“I got the job as assistant curator in 2016 and have worked full time on the Burrell ever since. It feels like things have come full circle in a way, back to where it all started for me.”

Bauld is curating the Burrell’s first exhibition, which will open later in the year.

“It is about Sir William Burrell as a person, and the story of his decision to donate the collection to Glasgow in 1944,” she says.

“He kept collecting, right up until his death in 1958 – he added something like 2000 objects on top of the 6000 he had already donated. The exhibition will provide some insight into the man, and the collector, why this building was located here, and how we as a city were given this amazing gift.”

What Sir William would make of the ‘Burrell renaissance’, is the “million dollar question”, agrees Bauld.

“He donated the collection to the people of Glasgow, to inspire them,” she says, thoughtfully. “What he’d think of all the whizz-bang technology, I don’t know, but I think he would be happy that his collection is still being used, so many years later, to inspire a new generation.”

As a curator, Bauld’s speciality is decorative art, including silver, ceramics, furniture and table glass. “I helped research the collection and put together the new displays, and the concepts we explore in the different galleries,” she says.

“One of my favourite displays – although favourite is the wrong word – is The Price of Sugar, which includes 17th century furniture and 18th century silver owned by people who took part in the slave trade.

“Glasgow’s museums have a huge commitment to anti-racism, and to making sure histories that are often overlooked or hidden, such as those of the LGBT community, are represented.”

She explains: “This display is a good example of something that on the face of it looks simple - just some lovely chairs and beautiful decorative glass – until you look a bit closer.

“Those chairs were owned by a wealthy merchant who invested in the plantations in the Americas and the Caribbean, who probably had direct involvement in the evolution and expansion of the slave trade in these areas. The chairs were built off the profits of slavery.”

She adds: “The Dutch engraved glass looks beautiful, a rural scene carved into a goblet.

“But the picture was a coded message for the owners, to toast their own successes, and it depicts slaves, working in the fields. The glass representing the skin of the white people is clouded, while that depicting the skin of the African figures is left clear so that when a red wine was poured into the goblet, those areas would appear black. It is racially charged, quite sinister – and an important story to tell.”

An oil painting nearby, is likely to have equally strong resonance with modern audiences.

The Flight into Egypt, attributed to Master of the Prado Adoration of the Magi (active c.1450–1475) shows Mary and Joseph travelling to Bethlehem.

“It is easy to look at it and see the biblical story, but Mary and Joseph were refugees, fleeing from their homes, fearing for their lives,” says Bauld.

“The interpretation for this painting will include the voices of refugees and asylum seekers – and that is all the more relevant in the light of what’s happening just now in Ukraine and around the world.”

Relating the past to modern life, through telling the stories of the objects in Burrell’s collection, has been at the heart of the process for Bauld and her team of fellow curators.

“It is a different way of working but the benefits are so vast,” she says. “This is a collection for the people of Glasgow, and it is only by including their voices, perspectives and truths that we make it relevant to them, and to the city today.”

With the emphasis on flexible displays, increased access and a storytelling approach, even regular visitors will always be able to find something new, Duncan Dornan points out.

“We now have flexibility to change objects quickly and easily, and staff can alter digital elements themselves, so the collection can keep evolving,” he adds.

“It is a very considered collection – Burrell was wealthy, but he was up against some serious collectors, so he had to work hard to make sure he got the best for what he could afford.”

He tuts impatiently at criticisms Burrell was a ‘magpie’.

“That is doing him a huge disservice,” he says, frowning. “He did his research, he wasn’t just grabbing things that were bright and shiny. It is why it’s so diverse – medieval works, Chinese bronzes, contemporary French art…. there is so much surprise in it.”

He adds, smiling: “And it’s great fun. You really don’t know what you will see around the next corner, and that is quite wonderful.”

The Burrell, Pollok Park, Glasgow, reopens to the public on Tuesday