Paisley Museum Reimagined: The Displays

A museum should be in a place, of a place, and yet take visitors outside of that place.

There is no singular definition of Paisley and no single authoritative voice. Stories are at the heart of our project; stories that can only be told about Paisley and Renfrewshire.

We will co-produce displays with local people to ensure that our stories are democratic, diverse, bold and truly representative of our communities. Through the displays we will explore the defining characteristics and identity of Paisley and Renfrewshire.


Paisley has a proud history of radicalism and radical thinkers rooted in the activism of its weaving populace throughout the 19th century. The radical tradition extends beyond the political landscape of the 1820 Radical War to include the poetry of Alexander Wilson, the fashion designer Pam Hogg who has consistently refused to play by commercial rules and Paisley’s thriving punk scene where punk became a voice for a generation coming of age in an era of mass unemployment and dramatic social change.


Many of Paisley and Renfrewshire’s stories speak of resilience in the face of adversity – the ability to challenge power and of overcoming difficulties. Stories include women such as Jane Caldwell who built the Teetotal Tower in the 19th century as part of the temperance cause, and Mary Donaghue whose ‘snail in the bottle’ court case established the concept of ‘duty of care’ and has never been challenged since in English law. The town has survived bankruptcy, the loss of over 2,000 men in the First World War and the Glen Cinema disaster. These stories speak of our resilience and ability to overcome challenges.

Cultural curiosity

The arts, literature, intellectual enquiry – ‘the rightful occupancy of the intellectual terrain’ – are part of the cultural identity and wellbeing of Paisley. Stories will focus on Paisley artists such as John Byrne, Claire Barclay, Alex Cubie (illustrator of the Rupert annuals) and architect James Steel Maitland, as well as radical poets such as Alexander Wilson, Robert Tannahill and the establishment of the Coffee Room during the Scottish Enlightenment.


Paisley was known as the ‘arsenal of invention’ for its innovations in the weaving industry, but this pioneering reputation was not confined to the textile industry. The Paisley Rocketeers Society, set up by school boys, held the first known successful launch of a three-stage rocket in 1937. In 1956, the first purpose-built Antarctic support vessel the RSS John Biscoe was built in Paisley.

Global Connections

For a period of roughly 100 years from the 1760s to the 1860s Paisley was one of the biggest textile manufacturing centres in Europe. By the mid 19th century the town’s name had become synonymous with a pattern which had made its way along the silk route, and was the catalyst for its textile industry. Stories of trade, exploration, adventure and migration emphasize these international connections. Expeditions to Antarctica including as William Speirs Bruce successful 1902 expedition or Henry ‘Birdie’ Bowers fateful journey in 1910. We will celebrate people like Paisley-born Alexander Wilson who became known as ‘the father of American ornithology’ as well as St Mirren winning the Barcelona Cup in 1922. We will welcome new communities to Paisley as well as consider those who have left.

I have visited the Museum for many years ... it is full of unique and inspiring objects that not only give great pleasure but educate and nourish the soul.

Sam Ainsley
Former Head of MFA programme
The Glasgow School of Art

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