Glaswegians love the People’s Palace but do the powers-that-be? Is a coup
to come? Julie Morrice meets Elspeth King, its
Elspeth King has a dream. In it she climbs to the top of the People‘s Palace to discover that the building has another storey, a series of period rooms charting the history of Glasgow from earliest times up until the 19505.
In reality, the museum ends in a guddle ofbuilding work, a half-erected temporary exhibition and the crowning glory of Ken Currie‘s mural. For the fifteen years that Elspeth King has been in charge of the People‘s Palace, it has lurched from one structural repair to another. Exhibitions have closed, noise has driven visitors away. and, with phoenix-like resilience, plans for the restructuring of Glasgow Green have returned to threaten the future of the museum itself. King has sat them out. Huddled in an office thick with 18th-century almanacks, cluttered with the distillations of a thousand attics, she looks as though she would sit out the Plagues of Egypt-
Her involvement with the People‘s Palace began when she first set eyes on it, in 1970: ‘I was very taken with the place. I actually aimed to work here because I thought it would be a great place to see develop and grow.‘ Brought up in Fife. educated at St Andrews University and then at Leicester. Elspeth King claims citizenship of Glasgow by adoption only. Yet her dedication to recording the history not ofGlasgow, but of Glaswegians. is unassailable: ‘It was when I first saw Glasgow. I think I fell in love. First with the fabric of the place and then with the people.‘
People is what the People‘s Palace is all about. Go along on a Saturday and you will find folk walking round the exhibitions as ifthey owned them. No awed hush here; instead a constant interested chatter punctuated with cries of recognition.
‘They’re all experts on the stuff that‘s here. They can tell you more about it than you know yourself,‘ says King. Whether it is Billy Connolly‘s banana boots or the paraphernalia of 19th-century childbirth, the objects on display at the People‘s Palace are redolent ofthe indigenous culture of
Glasgow which is so much talked about and so seldom seen.
Struck from the start by the riches on offer for the cataloguer. King couldn‘t wait to begin rescuing and recording Glasgow‘s social history. Since 1974, she has collected and presented material on a host of themes— the Temperance Movement, Women‘s Suffrage. Celtic F.C. , Unemployment. The response from the public has been overwhelming, both in vastly increased visitor figures, and in endless donations of memorabilia. Carrier bags heaped in the corner of Elspeth King‘s office are the latest, as yet unacknowledged, gifts. As a result ofthese, and of King‘s own magpie instincts, the museum has a vast, ever-growing collection, only a tiny proportion ofwhich can be put on show at one time. Nevertheless, Elspeth King is enthusiastically collecting for two exhibitions this year: on iced cakes. and on dog-racing. doo-keeping. dancing. cinema-going, theatre and variety.
‘If it‘s got to be culture this year,‘ says King, ‘it‘s going to be popular culture.‘
‘The Palace has the most intelligent. coherent and comprehensive social history collections of any city in Britain,‘ writes Mark O‘Neill. curator of Springburn Museum. ‘I thought it would have been a self-evident thing for the museums to have done.‘ says King, ‘but I‘ve had to fight for the right to do it every bit of the way.‘ It has. by all accounts. been a fight indeed, a stubborn, uncompromising battle which has left Elspeth King with as many adversaries as admirers.
In 1985 King wrote of Glasgow ‘officially shaking off the gloomy dust ofits industrial past . . . to become a ‘first class tourist and conference centre‘. The main industrial development we have to look forward to.‘ she added. ‘is the 1988 Garden Festival.‘ Such remarks are not the kind to endear her to her bosses at the City Chambers. but King is unbowed. Amongst councillors, officials and museum colleagues, her reputation as a bonny fighter goes before her. It‘s amazing, say the tittle-tattlers, that. when she has so many. Elspeth is still her own worst enemy.
Admitting her reputation as a hard
nut. King believes she has operated in the only way she could. given the circumstances: ‘lt‘s not for my own ends,‘ she says. ‘I feel that this is what the people of Glasgow want. and this is the interest that should be served. But public service is a notion that is not now valued. It‘s self-service, the greed-is-good society. But I‘ve got a clear idea of what I‘m doing and for whom I‘m doing it.‘
‘She has done more than almost anyone to preserve the evidence of Glasgow‘s life and culture.‘ said Donald Saunders in the introduction to his Glasgow Diary. ‘Elspeth King has been one of the most committed social historians that we have in the museum profession in Scotland.‘ says Timothy Ambrose. director of the Scottish Museums Council. "The work that she has done at the People‘s Palace has aroused enormous public interest as witnessed by the increasing visit numbers.‘
The plaudits roll in for Elspeth King and the People‘s Palace. Alasdair Gray thinks she‘s doing a great job; Billy Connolly says it is the most alive museum he has experienced Yet in the city which boasts the Burrell. the private collection ofa millionaire. and the new McLellan Galleries. the
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4 The List 26 January - 8 February 1990