At the end of July 2017 the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) in Glasgow unveiled a permanent display on its two elliptical balcony spaces within the interior of the building. Stones Steeped in History tells the story of the building from before it was built in 1776 through its various uses and modifications up to its controversial opening as a gallery of contemporary and modern art in 1996.
The display describes that the original building belonged to William Cunninghame of Laishaw and that he was a millionaire merchant. We are explicit in detailing that his wealth trading American tobacco and Caribbean sugar relied on the exploitation of slave labour on plantations. The information on display also gives the further context of how Glasgow’s Georgian New Town in and around Cunninghame’s mansion developed as a business quarter. Again we detail that this new city grew through wealth acquired through slavery and selling addictive tobacco, sugar and alcohol.
GoMA welcomes around 600,000 visitors per year and is Scotland’s most visited modern art gallery. We feel it is important that we allow visitors access to information about the establishment of GoMA and what the beautiful neo-classical building was used for before. It has been a home, a bank, an exchange and a library before its current use as a gallery.
This new display allows us to tell the story of the building through times of great wealth from international trade – with undeniable links to slavery – to innovations such as one of the city’s first telephone exchanges and on to Glasgow’s rise as a centre for art and culture. The permanency of the display allows us to be transparent about this history all year round (not just for one-off events during the course of the year) and to treat and interpret the building as the beautiful architectural object that it is.