The National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh
Newly renovated NMS showcases Scottish achievements
With its priceless collections and vast Victorian grand hall, the National Museum of Scotland has delighted generations of Edinburgh citizens. It draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, so its current three-year-long, £46m overhaul, due for completion in the summer, is a job that has to be undertaken wearing kid gloves – especially when it comes to removing the entrance hall’s fish ponds so beloved of paddling children. Contrary to popular belief, the fish have only been there since the 1960s so the decision to remove them in an attempt to take the building back to its original roots and purpose, displaying objects in the best possible way, makes sense. And when visitors get an eyeful of the 8,000 new items on display, 80% of them never seen before (including a girder from the Tay Bridge, a rock from Vesuvius and a gyrocopter), as well as plenty of the old favourites, the fish will seem so last century.
‘A new street-level entrance opens up more space for exhibits and a massive installation up one wall contains 1,000 items, which you pass as you move round and up into the museum on glass lifts and around the balconies,’ says spokesperson Bruce Blacklaw. ‘It’s spectacular.’
Alongside these crowd-pullers, more familiar draws are still there: the totem pole, the Millennium Clock, with its gruesome timekeepers (‘Who were Hitler and Stalin, Mummy?’), and the popular stuffed animals, many of whom have been given a fluff-up, though a few have been retired while several new specimens have been acquired.
‘There’s now a big parade of these animals and they look more as if they are in their natural environment, flying or under water,’ says Blacklaw. ‘The emphasis is on learning about conservation and how the animals live, as well as the amazing senses and abilities they have.’
With four million items in storage and a vast collection to choose from, the idea of the Royal Museum Project was to get a bigger chunk of it on display by creating 50% more public space. Across the National Museum of Scotland, as the whole site will now be known, there will be 20,000 items in 36 galleries under one roof, 16 of them new, covering the wonders of nature, the diversity of world cultures and the excitement of science and discovery, as well as Scotland’s place in the word and the Scots who explored the planet, investigated other cultures and made innovations.
Navigating around the building is easier too, with visitors finding the transition from the newer side of the museum, which has been open as usual, to the Victorian part easier. As more of it is opened up, it is anticipated that people will find their way more easily to the upper floors, thanks to new elevators and escalators. Previously, fewer than 10% made it to the treasures on the upper floors – something to do with the café in the wonderfully airy and beautiful Grand Gallery, perhaps?
Designed by the visionary engineer Captain Francis Fowke and a local architect named Robert Matheson, the museum opened in 1854, with the foundation stone being laid by Prince Albert in 1861, his last public act. No stranger to change, the museum has evolved and adapted over the years, with gas lighting allowing the working population to visit in the evening, then electricity in the 1900s supplying the first interactive displays.
And since no visit is complete without a stop at the aforementioned café, visitors will be delighted to find that the new eating place continues to benefit from an alcohol licence, unlike its 1891 counterpart, which lost it after a campaign by temperance reformers.
With more access to the collections, more exhibits on display and more interaction with the public, the museum continues with its tradition of keeping up with the times, while linking Scotland to its history and heritage all the way up to the present day.
Fish ponds? What fish ponds?