SCOTLAND’s oldest public museum has been “reframed” to recognise Glasgow’s links to the slave trade and the dominance of “white, western males” in major art collections.

Out are the clusters of works by James McNeill Whistler and the Scottish Colourists that dominated the University of Glasgow’s Hunterian Art Gallery.

In its place, are stylistic clashes, with more women artists represented amongst paintings by Rubens, Rembrandt, Turner and Whistler.

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In the history of the industry of art, those who rose to the top were men.

They ran the art schools, they won the patrons, they were feted and exhibited, and through success came money and more lucrative commissions.

On one wall of the gallery, two small works by the artist Beatrice Whistler will be “overshadowed” by her husband’s famous full-length portrait of her, Harmony in Red.

The moment that you start looking at the margins, women start popping up. 

The Hunterian’s team of managers and curators are busy putting the final touches to a complete overhaul of the collection, before the museum reopens to the public on April 1. 

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The gallery has been developing ideas since 2021 and the live project to reimagine the collection got under way a year ago.

There have been a number of new acquisitions, and other works which have been under conservation for many years will be returned.

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They include a Gesso panel by Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh which was previously in the gallery’s adjoining house and has not been seen for several years.

However, the changes are mostly designed to ask questions of the viewer.

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The densely hung entrance gallery will include empty frames to signify the “missing” art, that was created and is not represented or does not exist.

“The challenge for us was to represent the gaps in the collection, the non-Western European art. How do we address that?," said Dr Lola Sanchez-Jauregui, curator of art collection at the Hunterian.

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“There is a lot that has been left out that we don’t have in the collection and we want to communicate that visually.

“We want to signify our openness to have a conversation with our visitors.

“A lot of what we are doing is about asking the questions. It gives us an opportunity to revisit the stories we tell and how we tell them.”

A Lady Taking Tea by Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin (1699-1779) will be used to highlight the city’s links to the slave trade.

“It is a work of art in its own right,” said the curator, “but we can also use it to think about the tea trade and slavery in the 18th century.

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“The wall will be filled with blue and white china.

“This is our way to tie [the issue up] in a more imaginative and creative way.”

The curator said that while the gallery had been traditionally characterised by Whistler and Glasgow colourists “other areas of the collection have not been promoted”.

She said: “When this building was made in the 1970s, there was an explosion of art and creativity and as they were working towards creating this space, they were acquiring works of art.”

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One of the strengths of the collection, she says, lies in work from the 1960s such as that by John Hoyland, the London-based British artist who was one of the country’s leading abstract painters until his death in 2011.

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“We want to play to our strengths here,” said Dr Lola Sanchez-Jauregu.

“I’m very very happy and very proud to say that we have increased the number of works by women. 

“That is something that has been very personal for me.

“One of the discussions we had was about whether we have one room dedicated to women artists but we felt it would be too segregationist.

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“The question of gender is across the gallery, we want to have that embedded in all our narratives.”

Another room of the gallery will question the idea of the canon, the ideal standard by which other things are measured. 

In art history, the canon is defined by bodies of works that are of “indisputable quality” or have passed an ambiguous test of value that deem the works worthy for study.

“A lot of works have been left on the margins,” said the curator.

“Why is that, who is making those decisions?

“The moment that you start looking at the margins, women start popping up. 

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“A lot of women were only allowed to work in needlework, in graphic arts.

"We will have the chance to open that conversation up.”

The Hunterian is the oldest museum in Scotland, incorporating an art gallery and Mackintosh House as well as a zoology and anatomy museum, which are all located on the University of Glasgow campus

In 1783, William Hunter, a Scottish anatomist and physician who studied at the University of Glasgow, died in London. His will stipulated that his substantial and varied collections should be donated to the University of Glasgow. 

The art gallery is now housed in a modern, custom-built facility that is part of the university’s library complex, designed by William Whitfield.