Exhibitions which made Glasgow and provided a lifeline for our lost history

NOT by coincidence, this week sees a remarkable double anniversary, namely the 120th anniversary of the opening of the Glasgow International Exhibition of 1901, and the 110th anniversary of the opening in Glasgow of the Scottish Exhibition of National History, Art and Industry.

While the former is commemorated in its home city and has left behind notable landmarks, it is the latter exhibition which I believe is the more important as it left an indelible mark on the Scottish nation.

Glasgow had already held an International Exhibition of Science, Art and Industry in 1888 which was the largest ever held in Scotland. It attracted nearly 6 million people and left Glasgow one notable landmark – the beautiful Doulton Fountain, now at Glasgow Green, which remains the world’s largest ceramic fountain.

That first international exhibition was very much about showing off Glasgow to the world and confirming Glasgow as the Second City of the Empire. It also showed that the west end of the city in the environs of Kelvingrove was the best place to mount such events.

The River Kelvin was deepened especially for the 1888 exhibition, and featured a gondola imported from Venice and two singing gondoliers quickly nicknamed Signor Hokey and Signor Pokey by the ever-irreverent Glaswegian crowds.

Importantly the exhibition made a £43,000 profit which went towards the construction of the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum which became the Palace of Fine Arts in the Glasgow International Exhibition that was opened by the Duchess of Fife on May 2, 1901. It would have had a royal opening, but King Edward VII and the Royal Family – indeed most of the UK – were still in half-mourning after the death of Queen Victoria on January 22.

People attending the exhibition wore black and the iron railings across the city were also painted black as a mark of respect to the late Queen.

The extraordinary 1901 exhibition ran until November and showcased Glasgow to the world and brought the world to Glasgow. Japan, Canada and especially Russia had their own displays with Tsar Nicholas II personally paying out £30,000 to fund his country’s “Russian village”. There was also a huge industrial hall that featured Glasgow’s manufacturing output surrounded by innovations from across the world. Concerts were held and numerous sporting events, including a football tournament in which Rangers beat Celtic in the final – in a strange postscript, the trophy was donated by Rangers the following year for the British League Cup tournament held to raise funds for the victims of the first Ibrox Disaster, and Celtic beat Rangers in the final to gain permanent possession of the cup.

Some 11.5m people visited the 1901 Exhibition which yielded a profit of more than £35,000 and permanent reminders can be seen in Kelvingrove Park including the organ in the Art Galleries and Museum, numerous paintings donated by Glasgow businessmen, and the two “Port Sunlight” cottages which were demonstrations of future homes.

The success of the Glasgow International Exhibition inspired the 1911 Scottish Exhibition of National History, Art and Industry which opened on May 2, 10 years to the day after the opening of the 1901 Exhibition. It also ran until November, and was attended by more than 9m people, a testament to the fact that people were becoming more and more fascinated by Scotland’s history.

To my mind the 1911 exhibition was considerably more important for Scotland, not least because the £20,000 profit, as intended, endowed the University of Glasgow’s Chair of Scottish History and Literature, the reason for holding the exhibition in the first place. The professorship was inaugurated in 1913 and has subsequently been filled by such luminaries as Robert Rait, John Duncan Mackie, George Pryde, Archie Duncan, Ted Cowan and the current occupant, Professor Dauvit Broun. Each of them have made their own distinct contribution to the study and promotion of Scottish history and for that alone we can thank the 1911 Exhibition.

It did much more for the country than that, however. The official guide to the Exhibition said: “The inception of this Exhibition had its origin in the belief, shared by many, that the time had fully arrived when Scottish History should be placed in a different plane than it had hitherto occupied in the education of the rising generations of Scottish children, and not less in the teaching of the subject in our schools and colleges.

“It was thought that to attain this object a movement should be initiated for the raising of such a sum of money as would adequately endow a Chair of Scottish History and cognate subjects in Glasgow University. At the outset of the movement it was thought that the objects might be best attained by instituting an Exhibition in which the National History, Art, and Industry of Scotland were expounded.”

Particularly fascinating was the Prehistoric section which the Glasgow Herald described as “a show of Scottish pre-history objects seen in their original environment and described accurately but concisely.”

All aspects of Scottish history were displayed in the Palace, while the galleries dedicated to Art and Industry were equally informative and innovative. In short, the 1911 Exhibition was a Scottish triumph.

Which brings me to a final thought – 110 years on, perhaps it is time for another Scottish Exhibition of National History, Art and Industry to correct the “Britification” of our nation’s history. We could even have a football tournament and I’m sure Celtic would polish up that old trophy and donate it.

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