The construction of Kelvingrove was partly financed by the proceeds of the 1888 International Exhibition held in Kelvingrove Park. The gallery was designed by Sir John W. Simpson and E.J. Milner Allen and opened in 1901. It is built in a Spanish Baroque style, follows the Glaswegian tradition of using red sandstone, and includes an entire program of architectural sculpture by George Frampton, Francis Derwent Wood and other sculptors.
Although intended as a permanent building, it was designed as a principal building of another International Exhibition in the Park in 1901. This explains why the building appears to be built 'back to front'. Nowadays most visitors enter from the main street, Argyle Street — the "back" of the building (Kelvingrove has photographs and programmes from the original exhibition on display).
The museum's collections came mainly from the McLellan Galleries and from the old Kelvingrove House Museum in Kelvingrove Park. It has one of the finest collections of arms and armour in the world and a vast natural history collection. The art collection includes many outstanding European artworks, including works by the Old Masters, French Impressionists, Dutch Renaissance, Scottish Colourists and Glasgow School.
The museum houses Christ of Saint John of the Cross by Salvador Dalí. The copyright of this painting was bought by the curator at the time after a meeting with Dalí himself. For a period between 1993 and 2006, the painting was moved to the St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art.
Kelvingrove reopened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on 11 July 2006 after a three-year closure for major refurbishment. The work cost over £28m and includes a new restaurant and a large basement extension to its display space to accommodate the 8000 exhibits now on display.