Having quietly endured almost twenty years of managed decline, writes Hailey Maxwell, it is crucial that we consider the possibility that the Peoples’ Palace on Glasgow Green – a valuable civic asset and monument to Scottish history and working-class life may presently be at real risk of being neutralised, misappropriated and entirely co-opted into a neoliberal agenda. Spaces and places which were once public are being repurposed and reimagined not for the benefit of the citizen but for the property developer, the multi-national corporation and the tourist.
Glasgow Green is arguably the most important public space in Scotland – for 800 years it has been at once a playground and a battlefield. It was the site of the Glasgow Fair, where both Rangers and Celtic were founded, where James Watt invented the steam engine and where Charles Edward Stuart rallied his army. The jewel in the crown of the vast green, the doors of the People’s Palace and Winter Gardens finally opened to welcome its people in 1897 after three decades of planning. A scheme of neo-classical figurative sculpture adorns the sandstone exterior of the Palace: figures representing Shipbuilding, Mathematics and Science, Sculpture, Painting, Engineering and Textiles stand along the exterior balustrade while above, the seated figure of Progress is flanked by Science and The Arts. This sculptural programme, reflected in the combination of facilities within the institution – reading and recreation rooms, a museum and an art gallery as well as the music hall in the lush Winter Gardens, was very much in tune with typically late 19th century municipal Glaswegian Victorian aspirations to provide working class people with opportunities to access cultural education and sober leisure.
This provision of culture for the deprived inner-city locals of the East End was considered in tandem with the Glasgow Corporation’s tackling of widespread crime, disease, deprivation and drunkenness in a rapidly growing city of the Industrial Revolution as Lowlander, Highlander and Irish workers alike made the Second City of Empire their home. As the wealth generated by Glasgow’s imperial spoils was celebrated through the arts, the political and economic dominance of merchants and industrialists was reproduced and consolidated culturally via the patronage and collecting of individuals – such as shipping magnate William Burrell – and in a series of International Exhibitions held throughout the century – three at Kelvingrove and the final Empire Exhibition at Bellahouston Park beginning a few months before Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia. Glasgow had particularly squalid, overcrowded urban slums – Edwin Chadwick wrote in 1842 that “on the whole … both the structural arrangements and the condition of the population … was the worst … in any part of Britain.” In 1886 a third of all families lived in one just room. Unsurprisingly, in conditions of so many bodies occupying such little space with no privacy and poor access to sanitation – contagious disease thrived. Major outbreaks of influenza, tuberculosis, cholera, typhus and typhoid abbreviated the lives of the residents of whole tenements. The Glasgow Corporation responded to the crisis and in the 19th century Glasgow’s municipal provision of water, transport, energy and housing communications developed to shine among the most advanced and innovative in the Western world, providing a persuasive model of municipal socialism. The building of the Palace was done so in acknowledgement that the galleries of Sauchiehall Street and the West End were socially inaccessible to the working classes and that access to open green space was of crucial importance to maintaining workers’ health and as such, the prosperity of the city.
The misery of economic recession in the 1930s saw the perpetuation of many issues around sub-standard housing, deprivation, violence and diseases of despair. Even as late as 1951, 50% of the Glaswegian population still lived in homes with only one or two rooms. Previous attempts at slum clearance had not sufficiently solved the city’s entrenched social problems, however, the introduction of the post-war Welfare State created an appetite for social-housing provision and as such a new era of large scale spatial and social transformation began. The Bruce Report (1944) proposed a modernisation of the whole city via total demolition – existing buildings were to be replaced with fashionable high-rise housing and office blocks. The alternative was the Abercrombie Plan (1949), which instead suggested demolition that a large portion of Glasgow’s population should be dispersed to surrounding towns. The approach was a balance of the two proposals – many citizens were scattered across the six New Towns designated between 1947-1973 while within the city, a number of decaying tenements were eradicated and replaced by large modernist complexes erected in their place such as the Hutchesontown C development inspired by Le Corbusier’s utopian Unité d’habitation in Marseilles. The Glasgow Eastern Area Renewal Strategy (GEAR) was a £200m public-sector-led initiative, which began in 1976 and ran for a decade, was one of the largest urban renewal projects in Europe at the time. The conclusion of this post-war era of radical urban renewal was a series of international events which aimed at shirking Glasgow’s reputation for poverty and razor gangs, beginning with the Glasgow Garden Festival 1988 and later consolidated by successful bids to become the 1990 European City of Culture and the 1999 UK City of Architecture. Amid the regeneration the workers’ market district of the Trongate was renamed ‘Merchant City’ and transformed into an upmarket commercial area where the wealthy could enjoy shopping and dining on streets named in honour of slavers.
Glasgow Museums own some of the finest artefacts of labour history in the world and the provenance of many of these objects and ephemera can be traced back to the Palace’s golden years, beginning in the late 1970s until around 1990 – which was an extremely exciting period of collecting, exhibitions and commissions, producing artworks which have been of great significance to Scottish 20th century culture. Under the loving curatorship of the socialist feminist Elspeth King, a miner’s daughter and medievalist who remains one of Scotland’s most esteemed historians and principle authority on the history of the Palace, the museum was revived from ruin and produced a great number of exhibitions detailing the lives of people in Glasgow. There were many exhibitions on labour history in Glasgow, including one on Red Clydesider James Maxton MP (1885 – 1946) the centenary of the Scottish Labour Party, 1888-1894; Scotland Sober and Free, 1979 demonstrating the entanglement of temperance and socialism to mark the 150th anniversary of the temperance movement. Probably the first ever publication on the Scottish Women’s Suffrage Movement was written by King, in conjunction with The Right to Vote exhibition, commemorating the 21st anniversary of the Representation of the People Act, (1978). Preserving and educating the public about the relationship between communal life and public art in Glasgow was also an area of interest during this period.
Amidst the post-war era of mass demolition in the city when many filthy, blackened tenements as well as shops, churches and public buildings were razed to make way for regeneration, the palace curators dug through demolition sites to conserve the history of skilled artisans in Glasgow. This period of intensive collecting and research showed how Glasgow’s Victorians were able to utilise local skills and sustainable materials to create clean and beautiful civic spaces. Palace assistant curator Michael Donnelly led the collection of stained-glass panels, rescuing mainly from demolition sites, demonstrating for the first time Glasgow’s pivotal role in the manufacture of stained glass in the 19th and 20th century and culminated in the 1981 exhibition Glasgow Stained Glass which exhibition won a European Museum of the Year Award in 1982. The Palace also collected many thousands of fine examples the wally (ceramic) tiles which still adorn the city’s tenement closes. The Palace curators demonstrated that iconic architectural features of the Glasgow tenement developed out of municipal concerns for sanitation as well as the decorative, with the Glasgow Corporation Sanitation Department tiling closes to prevent the spread of typhus disease in inner city slums. The moulded ceramic tiles adorned with the dignified floral and vegetable motifs of Art Nouveau ornamentation (often locally designed and produced – although some tiles collected in Glasgow were designed by artists such as the revolutionary socialist William Morris) were a common feature of public life. In the days before secure entry, the close was a continuation of the street and important part of community living and the beautiful clean, highly decorative tiles which are still synonymous with Glaswegian dwelling were everywhere in public life – from the tenement close, to the butchers to the fishmonger to pubs and public halls.
As well as preserving public art of the city, King commissioned work by then unknown local artists which vital documents of urban and social transformation by some of Scotland’s most celebrated 20th century artists. To mark the 200th anniversary of the Calton Weavers Massacre, Ken Currie was commissioned to produce his epic, eight panel Glasgow History mural commemorating the heroism and suffering of the labour movement in the city from 1787 -1987.Concerned that the museum lacked artworks depicting Glasgow’s people and places in the post-war period, in 1977, King commissioned the late, great Alasdair Gray via a job creation scheme to produce his City Recorder series, today an important cultural artefact which preserves the spirit of era. He drew the likes of Margot MacDonald, Jimmy Reid, Harry McShane and Pastor Jack Glass with the same love and attention as he drew ordinary workers and drunks down the Calton. In Avril Paton’s The Barras 1984 we see the long lost hustle and bustle of the now quiet market, then full of hawkers and bargain hunters, happy children and old women getting their messages.
The scholarly, civic curatorship of the Palace’s Golden years was brutally brought to an end to make way for the widely contested neoliberal ‘Glasgow’s Miles Better’ branding project in the bid for the City of Culture title which saw Elspeth King shamefully expelled from the Palace and the arrival of a bleak era from which the integrity of Glasgow Museums have struggled to recover. Headed by the New Labourist (avant la lettre!) triumvirate of Pat Lally, Julian Spalding and Mark O’Neill, Glasgow City of Culture contested and eradicated the collective memory of Red Clydeside and Industrial Glasgow through a revisionist approach to popular history and urban heritage. As Assistant Curator Michael Donnelly wrote to the Herald:
“If Glasgow is to avoid some of the worst aspects of urban decline … it must base its future on a sound and critical analysis of its cultural and political past and present. To face up to that task … was a unique challenge implicit in the award of the City of Culture title. But that opportunity was rejected and instead the District Council allows itself to be highjacked by the concept cowboys and mythologists of the public relations industry. Their object was not to hold up to inspection and critical analysis the radical past of this city and its unique contribution to socialism. On the contrary, they considered this past to be inglorious and anaethemistic to those who take pride in its achievements.”
The Palace’s current displays reflect this abrupt change in personnel and curatorial approach of the museum and it is clear little has been updated since then. For the Palace, history ended in 1990. Today the Ken Currie mural is obscured in darkness, the spotlights which should illuminate its panels are pointed away from the workers struggle. In lieu of many of the treasures which were historically cared for at the museum – their absence marked – today visitors are both dizzied by cheap interpretation boards, the content of which often swings from the bizarre and patronising, to the morally dubious and politically insidious in a cacophony of fonts better suited to a 90s secondary school textbook than a museum in 2020. The processional banners, and historical artefacts which tell the stories of the revolutionary struggles of Red Clydeside, the campaigns against deindustrialisation, the opposition of the Poll tax and Polaris nuclear weapons are displayed alongside lavish portraits of capitalists and slavers within a curatorial scheme presented as a neat universal vision of Glasgow’s political history. A silver collar is on display, an indignity suffered by many Afro-Caribbean people trafficked and kept as slaves by Glaswegian industrialists. The museum interpretation board explains that these were ‘worn by servants.’ A bench from the Broomilaw poorhouse sits halfway up the gallery wall, obscured almost out of sight. A short film featuring Jimmy Reid plays on loop on a small television perched atop a battered, neglected desk – in fact the desk of John McLean. In the central gallery 200 years of hard fought workers’ struggles are entirely depoliticised and recorded as banal, inconsequential anecdote. Elsewhere in the gallery the neglected permanent displays offer shallow narratives around leisure, alcohol, crime and war –the people of Glasgow deserve better than an infantalising cultural narrative within which Glaswegians either do nothing but drink and fight, or go to prison.
Glasgows Museums have a valuable pedagogical function and we are lucky as a city that these facilities are free. However, the city’s East End is already woefully short of cultural assets (municipally owned or otherwise) and city-wide, the work done by civic initiatives such as adult learning, youth clubs, museum tours, are increasingly only possible due to the goodwill, passion and unpaid labour of volunteers, in spite of the disempowerment caused by the unambitious, disinterested managerial approach of Glasgow Life (a sprawling organisation which, incidentally is headed by the wife of former Scottish Labour First Minister Jack McConnell, known today as Baron McConnell of Glenscorrodale).
Having quietly endured almost twenty years of managed decline, it is crucial that we consider the possibility that the Palace – a valuable civic asset and monument to Scottish history and working-class life may presently be at real risk of being neutralised, misappropriated and entirely co-opted into a neoliberal agenda. It is not beyond the imagination to speculate that a ‘repurposing’ could involve the last of the Palace’s collection, like the Winter Garden’s plants, being relocated and displayed elsewhere, leaving the Palace open for renovation and utilisation in the context of the delivery of private events like TRNSMT or the World Pipe Band Championships, perhaps as a catering venue, public convenience or production space. In a step which one might argue skims dangerously close to asset transfer, in February 2019 the council released a statement indicating that major buildings and venues including Emirates Arena, Riverside Museum, SEC Armadillo, Scotstoun Leisure Centre, Tollcross International Swimming Centre, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow Museums Resource Centre, City Halls, Toryglen Football Centre, Gorbals Leisure Centre and Bellahouston Leisure Centre would become part of the City Property portfolio and leased back to the council to finance the costs of at least £500 million won in the Equal Pay settlements agreement and another loan taken out by the council in 2010. The People’s Palace and Winter Gardens are not on this list at present however the threat is not without historical precedent. In 1990, then leader of Glasgow City Council Pat Lally tried to sell off the Flesher’s Haugh to repay debts accumulated during the City of Culture. The Glasgow Keelie reported at the time that private development on the Green was voted out by 200+ locals who attended meetings in Bridgeton, the Gorbals and Shettleston and the city centre.
Partially designed by William Baird of the Temple Iron Works, the Winter Gardens were constructed by Boyd and Son of Paisley. The spectacular construction, complete with internal cast iron decorative columns, measures 180 by 120 feet and 60 feet high and models the upturned hull of the HMS Victory. Complex and fragile, the glass and steel lattice is indeed sensitive to changes in temperature and to high winds. The seriousness with which the Council is taking the Gardens’ preservation remains in question however as the spectacular glass hull is also extremely vulnerable to vibrations. Given these serious conservation concerns the decision to allow TRNSMT, a private, ticketed event and Scotland’s biggest music festival to take place in Glasgow Green twice since the first pane of glass fell in 2016 is a puzzling one, suggesting that the longevity of the glasshouse is not a primary concern. Of the £350,000 awarded by the City Administration for repairs at the end of 2018, the signs of expenditure most noticeable to visitors are the installation of a shop and a small café on the ground floor. What the money has erased is more significant. A significant portion was spent on re-routing the fire escape to bypass the Gardens entirely. A small square of white card has been glued onto each individual pane of the 19th century windows at the top of the grand central staircase, obscuring the grand vista where visitors to the Palace have looked down upon the Gardens since 1897. This intervention spares us the sight of residual dying ferns and palms and obliterates the memory of this space of beauty and leisure once gifted to the city’s workers. Indeed, there may not even be any plants left here after so many months – most of the greenery was quickly relocated to the leafy West End to join the rare plants in the Kibble Palace of the Botanic Gardens, or removed in unmarked vans by Lancashire-based Tropical Plants Company soon after the site closed in December 2018 (incidentally the Kibble Palace was restored in 2004 pane by pane at a cost of £7 million.)
Neoliberalism represents a strategy of political-economic restructuring that uses space as its privileged instrument. Deployed globally, this strategy means that idiosyncratic, organic and vernacular heritage is flattened and neutralised. Soon Glasgow will resemble any other city in the world. Spaces and places which were once public become repurposed and reimagined not for the benefit of the citizen but for the property developer, the multi-national corporation and the tourist.
The managed decline and privatisation of cultural and civic heritage is entangled with the wilful disintegration of communal ways of living more generally. For more than two decades, social and cultural infrastructure has been ripped out of communities as local councils across the UK flogging have flogged their assets to pay off debts – playing fields, community centres, libraries, youth clubs, swimming pools, social housing stock have all been lost. Indeed following several decades managing the decline of badly executed modernist social housing experiments at sites such as Oatlands and Red Road (the demolition of which was controversially planned as a spectacle marking the opening of the Commonwealth Games in 2014) in 2003 Glasgow City Council completed UK’s largest transfer of housing stock to Glasgow Housing Association. In the space of 40 years a Council which was once Europe’s biggest municipal landlord ceased entirely the provision of any social housing of its own.
With a lack of access to the opportunities for education and leisure that heritage venues like the Palace provide for citizens to educate themselves and reflect on their place in relation to the past and future, we are deprived of inspiration and models for transforming our lives. The People’s Palace is a living example of the notion of the common good. It belongs to the citizens of Glasgow for the purposes of enriching civic life. As artist and scholar Dr Emma Balkind has noted “The commons acts both as a local and an international project which encourages discussions around change and political activism.” The Palace’s golden years under King demonstrated both that it is possible to tell complex stories which go beyond miserabilist self-effacing rumination and narratives of social abjection which often proliferate in Scottish self-representation, and instead tell stories about how Glaswegians of the 19th and 20th centuries made beautiful things, participated in democracy and advocated for human dignity
Today, a growing number of individuals and groups are organising against the cultural hegemony consolidated by the subtle violence of this ideological forgetting as well as the poverty of neoliberalism’s imagination. This work clearly extends the anti-gentrification project initiated by the collective of writers and artists including James Kelman and Alasdair Gray who gathered under the banner of Workers City and contested the symbolic and economic implications of City of Culture at the time. Workers City faced allegations of presenting as a monolithic bloc in terms of class, race and gender privilege and were accused of romanticising the poverty and hardship of working-class experience while claiming monopoly over the city’s history. The notion of the right to the city, as asserted by Henri Lefebvre contests a purely economic interpretation of the metropolis and considers collective reclamation of the municipal city by its citizens – in terms of both taking back physical space and culture – as an essential political struggle. As David Harvey writes, the right to the city is not a liberal conception of rights; but “is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization.” The urgency of this reclamation is restated by Anna Minton, who in Big Capital presents the manner in which the demise of London has been accelerated byparasiticproperty developers and corporate interests. Across the globe, these agents nourish their endless need for capital by devouring public space and community assets – rendering the local idiosyncrasies and diverse ways of life that comprise urban experience absolutely indistinct, empty and banal. Today the urgency of reimagining, contesting and redistributing Glasgow’s history is once again a priority and this project in being undertaken in a mode which incorporates a multi-dimensional, intersectional perspective on the right to the city. Against the backdrop of the Commonwealth Games of 2014 a number of artists, writers and musicians participated in Empire Café – a public project which explored racism, colonialism and Glasgow’s role in the Atlantic slave trade. Despite the aggressively kitsch faux-solidarity of the ‘People Make Glasgow’ municipal branding and claims of an enhanced commitment to equality and socially progression made by civic nationalists, Glasgow remains the only Atlantic city in the UK without a memorial to slavery or a permanent museum display on the subject. In 2018. through the efforts of the Remember Mary Barbour Association, a statue of the socialist organiser and representative was erected at Govan Cross to publicly commemorate her vital role in the 1915 Rent Strikes. Barbour’s mantle has been taken up today by tenants’ union Living Rent, a rapidly expanding collective advocating for those impacted by social and private landlords’ failures to maintain legal or moral standards of maintenance, cleanliness or decoration. Amid the COVID crisis, the Workers’ Stories project seeks to create an archive of the ways labour in Scotland has been experienced before ways of working and whole industries disappear forever. Artists and scholars like Chris Leslie and Mitch Miller have picked up where King and Michael Donnelly left off – preserving and collecting those ephemeral testimonies about the ways Glaswegians live together in the space of this small city, which are at risk of disappearing altogether, but there is little or no established and formal civic support for this work.
Even for those privileged enough to be living out these socially distanced days within spacious private homes and gardens, as our lives have been limited to working from home, buying essentials and exercising outdoors, the experience of sharing space with others has taken more importance in our thoughts. The civic home of the city and the domestic home of the house or flat is the place where we are supposed to experience social, psychological and cultural wellbeing through feeling safe, connected and as though we have agency over our lives and choices. Just as a city is not just a place to be ‘based in’ or to extract money from, housing is not just physical shelter. Unlike the remains of the withering palms of the People’s Palace, culture, anthropologist James Clifford insists, is not ‘a rooted body that grows, lives, dies’, but is rather more like the Green – a site of ‘displacement, interference and interaction.’ As the number of lives lost to COVID-19 increases and the time spent confined within our homes lengthens, it becomes clearer that as a society we can no longer postpone a serious discussion on communal living, private ownership and social responsibility. Such a radical shift in our everyday lives has brought into relief the places which are important – beyond our basic needs of food, healthcare and housing it is the sharing of social, cultural and creative experiences which make life worth living, or at least more bearable. It is foundational to healthy democratic participation that citizens should have a free, well-maintained space to learn about civic life and how to transform it. The Palace’s original purpose – a home for collective history and the provision of culture for all citizens of Glasgow – is one worth defending.