Glasgow's world famous art collections will be put at risk for future generations if planned budget cuts go ahead, expert staff and a leading trade union fear.

Internationally renowned paintings, medieval textiles and tapestries and artefacts from ancient civilisations could be lost or damaged should budget savings of £1.5 million be approved, according to museum experts and Unison.

However, Glasgow Life insists work on protecting and caring for the works will continue despite the proposals with the collections' future safe.

Specialist employees who look after the collection's 1.2 million items - worth £1.4 billion - are among the roles that could be lost under the proposals by Glasgow Life, the arms length body which runs Glasgow city council's museums and galleries including the Burrell Collection, which reopened last year after a £68m refurbishment, and the Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery.

The Herald: View of the Burrell Collection taken at dusk. The Burrell Collection in Pollok Country park, Glasgow re-opened in March 2022 after a six year refurbishment. Photograph by Colin Mearns.

Posts earmarked to be axed include highly skilled curators, conservators, outreach assistants, digital photographers and technicians, the latter who are qualified in safe art handling methods.

Mandy McDowall, regional organiser for Unison, told The Herald that without the work of the dedicated curators, conservators and other staff, important works could be eaten by insects, broken if not handled correctly or damaged if not cleaned correctly.

She also warned that should the museum cuts go ahead some of thousands of priceless items could get lost if they are not being properly looked after.

The Herald: The Burrell Collection has the third largest collection of medieval stained glass in the world. Photo Colin Mearns.

"The collection is massive and if staff tasked with looking after the works lose their jobs, artworks could potentially disappear," she said.

"Glasgow Life has presented this plan as if it looks like a very minimal cut, and in the scheme of cuts it is not a lot financially, but the consequences are huge.

"We have said to councillors quite loudly now that they are the custodians of these works and have a responsibility to keep them safe.

"There could be a negligence put against their name in the future if these cuts go ahead."

The Herald: The Burrell Collection's famous tapestries are vulnerable to attacks by moths and need to be carefully looked after.  Pictured is the Hutton at home display. Photograph by Colin Mearns.

Ms McDowall pointed to decisions made by former councillors to build the M8 through the city which required bulldozing many historic buildings which many in the city have come to criticise.

"Look at the mistakes of the past, don't put the collection at risk. Councillors would not just be saving the artworks for people to enjoy currently, but they need to protect them for future generations," she said.

Ms McDowall went on to say the cuts to the museum and collection did not "make sense" financially as art enthusiasts who came to the city from all over the world would longer be likely to do so if the works were in a poor condition.

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Fiona Cairns, collections access assistant, said currently if an object is moved within one of the city's collections or loaned to an outside gallery or museum the information is logged on a database to ensure staff know where it is. Last year items were moved 50,000 times with all moves being carried out by specialist technicians with art handling skills.

She said if the staff cuts go through the artworks and artefacts would less "secure".

"The collection's management department where I work looks after the record of 1.2 million objects. We only have two inventory officers to track all these objects, so if we lose staff from collections management there will be fewer spot checks in our stores, fewer audits of the collection and it will take us longer to locate objects in the database. That really does mean the collection is less secure," she said.

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"We help to look after the objects on behalf of the people of Glasgow and we really need to know where everything is at any given time.

"It's clearly not desirable for there to be any delay in how we update the location of objects. Audits and spot checks are part of good collection care and if that level of care is compromised then there is an implicit security risk."

Her warning comes after a number of cases in recent months have come to the public's attention when valuable artefacts have gone missing, including at the British Museum in London. 

The Herald: A bed valance, 1532-36, from the Burrell Collection.  The combined H & A represent the union of King Henry VIII and his second wife Anne Boleyn. Photograph by Colin Mearns.

She said such instances could lead to 'international' reputational damage for an institution which required funding bodies, individual donors and private collectors to put their trust in.

"Museums need to be very trusted institutions so people feel confident to donate their objects to us and that those objects are going to be looked after for the very long term," she said.

"I think we are at risk of international reputational damage if we start to lose track of objects. There are a lot of risks around these cuts to the collections."

Ms Cairns added that there were already "too few" conservators who looked after light sensitive objects such as paintings, drawings, prints, books and tapestries and calculated how long and under what conditions it was safe to put an item on display.

The Herald: King Charles III visiting Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow in 2021 looking at the painting Christ of Saint John of the Cross by Salvador Dali. Photograph by Colin Mearns.

"Good collection care is a balance between having works on display and keeping items safe in storage. If you keep a painting or print on display for too long it will suffer light damage. Light damage to objects is irreversible," she said.

"We are already very short staffed and can't rotate all the light sensitive objects."

She went on to add that certain artefacts, including textiles, tapestries and taxidermy specimens were vulnerable to attacks by insects such as moths.

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She said part of the role of conservators in Glasgow's museums and galleries was to prevent moth infestations by carrying out regular deep cleans and monitoring the environment for signs of the insects.

"Some parts of the collection are really really vulnerable to pest damage. One of the most terrifying types of pest damage that can happen in a museum is moths.

"Moths can very very quickly sweep through world class medieval tapestries in the Burrell Collection or eat through our very very popular taxidermy displays in Kelvingrove," she added.

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Members of the trade union Unison took part in a five-day strike last week over the proposed cuts to Glasgow's museums and collections with further action planned.

Unison wants more national funding to be provided to Glasgow’s museums to recognise the international significance of the city's collection.

The city's museums and galleries are the largest civic service in the UK with works of local, national and global importance. 

The Burrell Collection has the third largest collection of stained glass in the world. Only the V&A in London and the Metropolitan Museum in New York has a larger collection of medieval stained class.

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It also includes original paintings by artists such as 15th century Dutch master Rembrandt, the Dutch post impressionist painter from the 19th century Vincent van Gogh, and by Edgar Degas, the 19th century French impressionist.

One of the most famous artworks in the collection is Salvador Dalí's Christ of St John of The Cross.

It is regarded as one of Scotland’s most treasured paintings and the greatest work of art in Glasgow’s civic collection.

The painting has recently gone on loan to the surrealist painter's home town of Figueres, in Catalonia, Spain, where it has gone on display at The Dali Theatre and Museum.

It was secured for Glasgow by Dr Tom Honeyman for £8,200 more than seven decades ago and is now valued at more than £60 million.

The £1.5million saving to the museums and collection budget is part of a package of more than £7 million of savings it needs to make after the council cut its service fee earlier this year.

A spokesman for Glasgow Life told The Herald that his organisation recognised the role of the museums in attracting international profile, that Glasgow’s "collections receive careful and considered care" and added that "this will continue".

"Glasgow Life’s annual service fee was cut by Glasgow City Council when the Council confirmed its 2023/24 budget in February.

"As a result, we must make £7.1 million worth of savings in this financial year. The measures identified within our museums and collections service, which have already been approved by the Council, are a direct consequence of the continued pressures on public sector finance," he added.

“Senior museums officers have met with Unison and our other trade unions repeatedly this year to explain the financial context for Glasgow Life’s operating climate and to discuss the implications of the planned staffing reduction within Glasgow Life’s Museums service.

"To achieve a balanced budget, and without additional funding, our only option would be to take the savings agreed in museums from elsewhere in Glasgow Life.

“We recognise how valued our museums and collections are to Glasgow’s communities and the city’s international profile, and we understand the concern any changes may cause.

"However, we have been saying for some time now that the savings we are making this year add up to around 9% of our annual service fee from the Council and ensure none of our facilities will have to close.

"Wherever possible, we have identified ways of making savings by reducing, rather than losing, Glasgow Life services, programmes, and events; retaining the potential to rebuild them in the future.

“We’re happy to continue to meet with Unison, should they request to do so, to explore whether a solution to this dispute can be found.

"We look forward to receiving their proposals for budget reductions that could be considered as alternatives to the current savings options approved by Glasgow City Council, as we work to secure a viable and sustainable museums and collections service which has a long-term future.”