15 March 2014

Where transport history is Glasgow

For anyone with even a passing interest in the history of transportation, the Riverside Museum in Glasgow is a must-visit pilgrimage, writes Brian Byrne.

With an extraordinarily eclectic mix of some 3,000 exhibits, this winner of the European Museum of the Year 2013 offers insights into the development of many modes of transport, and the motive technologies — many of them developed on Clydeside — that underpinned them. As well as a lot more.

It's a particular treasure trove for those interested in trains, ships and cars. And the way they're all exhibited mixed together is wonderfully quirky and attractive. For the time I spent mooching this morning, there was a constant silly smile on my face as I kept coming across nuggets which triggered personal memory, stimulated my (imperfect) knowledge of transportation history, and introduced me to things I never knew in terms of mechanical invention.

The Riverside Museum is the fourth home of what was originally the City Industrial Museum which showcased the engineering and invention of Glasgow in the latter part of the 19th century. In a purpose-designed and architecturally innovative building where the River Kelvin flows into the Clyde, the Riverside Museum is a keystone element in Glasgow's regeneration of the banks of the waterway from where the city built its wealth and reputation through centuries.

One part of that is actually outside the museum, the Glenree tall ship berthed at the back which symbolises the major trading across the world's oceans for which Glasgow business people were the entrepreneurial hubs.

Back inside are details and models of other ships from that age of sail, and how they were relegated by the local success in developing steam ships like Henry Bell's 'Comet' of 1812. There are later connections with the Queen Mary and other great 'Queens' — like the carpenter's tools used in the construction of one of them (above).

There are trams — Glasgow had one of the most technologically advanced tramway systems until they were retired in 1962 after serving the city's public for 90 years. There are trains built in Scotland and operated from there, and in some cases retrieved for the museum from other parts of the world to where they had been sold.

For an automotive buff like me, there are cars from my childhood memory and growing up which drowned me in nostalgia about by father's, and later my own cars which did similar duties in transporting our respective families through their rearing.

There are even prams, that mode of baby transport which has been left behind by the complicated baby buggies which are now de rigeur, not least because they can be folded into the backs of cars. My own first few children had prams. None of my grandchildren have had.

There's a Merryweather fire engine which was used for decades by Galway Urban Council from 1928 after its first Fire Station was set up following a series of disastrous fires.

And what's nice about so many of the exhibits here is that there are personal stories about the people connected with them. One that particularly stands out is the 1954 wooden rowing boat designed by Ben Parsonage of the Glasgow Humane Society for rescuing people in the Clyde, or, sadly, for safe retrieval of their bodies.

There's so much there. But this account can only be a taster of what is so far, for me, the best from what I've encountered this weekend in Glasgow.

You really need to come up here and see it for yourself.

Now, I have other things to suss out here. But there's the little matter of a rugby match at 5pm ...