Preview: the National Museum of Scotland
A sneak peek inside the museum, plus reminiscences from notable Edinburghers and a guide to upcoming events
The National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street is due to reopen this month after a three-year, £46.4 million redevelopment. David Pollock takes an exclusive peak behind closed doors to find out about the new exhibits
Anyone who looks back on a school trip, a rainy bank holiday or an educational Sunday visit with the kids to the National Museum of Scotland as it used to be will surely find that the giant blue whale skeleton hanging in the multi-level Eastern Gallery stands out in their memory. It’s not there any more – instead, a brand new aquatic panorama hangs in place, a spectacular frozen menagerie of life-size reconstructed sea creatures and smaller whale skeletons, a prominent giant squid and a great white shark (both taxidermist’s models) cutting through the air.
There are workmen all around and the final installations are still hurriedly being made ahead of the National Museum’s grand reopening later this month, but already The List has made a new discovery on its Friday afternoon promotional recce: who knew tuna fish were that big? ‘There you go, you’ve learned something,’ says the Museum’s communication officer Bruce Blacklaw. ‘That’s the whole point of this place, to show people something they’ve never seen before. Plus every great city needs a great museum.’
The three-years-in-completing renovation project has freshened up the interior significantly, turning the vaults below the Grand Gallery on Chambers Street into a new street-level entrance lobby containing a gift shop and Museum Brasserie, and also allowing for a complete overhaul of the collection using the four million pieces owned by National Museums Scotland. ‘Part of the reason for moving the whale skeleton is that our research shows a high proportion of visitors wouldn’t make it off the first floor,’ says Blacklaw. ‘With this new display we want to draw them into moving around the Museum, to see things from every perspective.’
Across the grand Victorian balconies of the smaller multi-level galleries, it’s already possible to see the collection slot into place, and to feel the exacting spirit of instructional and aesthetic pride that has gone into them. Katharine Malcolm, one of the Museum’s assistant curators, has been working on a section of the 20,000-item, 36-gallery display entitled Artistic Legacies, which places classical Greek and Italian ceramics and Peruvian Nazca pottery alongside examples of contemporary art to show how the same techniques and modes of expression still apply.
Malcolm uses the words ‘tradition’ and ‘renewal’ often in relation to her work here, and it’s easy to see how that same ethic might also apply to the new Museum and its collection. ‘Thanks to globalisation and cross-communication what were once separate traditions are now far more integrated,’ she says. ‘It’s important to reflect the fact we now live in a world where pretty much anything goes.’ She shows us a painting by the contemporary Iranian artist Khosrow Hassanzadeh, famous for his Terrorist collection, and draws our attention to both its relationship with Pop Art and the traditional decorative patterns on Persian ceramic tiles, a selection of which will hang on the next wall.
A beautiful black glass bird crafted by the Native American artist Preston Singletary stands in another case, the design heritage which informed its creation elaborated upon by a case of traditional Native American wood carvings and examples of Roman and 19th century European glasswork opposite. These displays will be augmented by touchscreen video presentations from many of the artists involved, the better to aid visitors’ understanding. ‘The work here is aimed at people who don’t know what contemporary art is,’ says Malcolm. ‘It isn’t just avant garde work, it’s everything that’s being produced right now.’
Sixteen of the redeveloped Museum’s 36 galleries are new, and where the existing galleries are about the story of Scotland from prehistory until the last century, these new spaces will, according to the official blurb, be focused on ‘Scotland’s place in the context of the wider cultural, political and natural world.’ Among the new galleries are Discoveries, which houses the repositioned Millennium Clock and a series of displays about famed Scots inventors and explorers, and Natural World, which contains that aerial underwater display and promises some of the more spectacular exhibits, including a life-size cast of a T-Rex skeleton.
Then, as everyone who has been in it knows, the Grand Gallery itself is a sheer marvel. The hall looks even more stunning following the renovation, with freshly white-painted pillars, balconies and metal frames on the imposing canopy windows creating a space which is bright, attractive and, as Blacklaw points out, ‘all about letting the collection and the Museum be seen.’ From the fourth floor balcony it looks fantastic, with no entrance desks or hanging exhibits to mar the view of a room with the scale and grandeur of a flagship Victorian train station.
From the café, which will be installed on the balcony, visitors can look down on large showpiece exhibits on the ground floor, like a Stevenson lighthouse lens (manufactured by Robert Louis’ family) or the 12,000-year-old skeleton of a giant deer. Or they can just admire the light, tiled Grand Gallery floor, mostly under wraps when we visited. ‘It’s limestone,’ points out Blacklaw, ‘so you’re already walking on fossils as soon as you step inside.’
Café-goers can also gaze across at ‘Windows on the World’, a centrepiece four-storey display of 800 exhibits from around the Museum’s collection, including everything from a gyrocopter to a mineral sample from the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. ‘One of the great advantages of the National Museum of Scotland is that we’re a museum of everything,’ says Blacklaw. ‘If you think of most of the famous national museums in London they specialise in one part of history, whereas you’ll see the world under one roof here.’
Opening a window on history isn’t the only purpose of the redeveloped Museum, with around three times the amount of education space, room for planned performance events and a new exhibition area all figuring. Already scheduled are the Edinburgh International Festival’s ‘The Legendary Music of Rajasthan’ series (Sat 27–Mon 29 Aug), an exhibition programme commencing in October, and the in-preparation Royal Bank of Scotland Lates series of evening talks and performances (see below for our pick of coming attractions). This supplementary programme will be expected to help the £46.4m development attract a projected one million visitors and earn an estimated £58m for the Scottish economy every year, as well as adding to the buzz surrounding the successful restoration of a valuable and iconic public space in the city.
Even with the sawdust-strewn floors and the taxidermy wrapped in binbags until certain windows have been blacked out, the new National Museum of Scotland already looks very much like the kind of building the people of the city will be proud to have back. In considering her own gallery Malcolm sums up the whole project. ‘We don’t want to tell people what to think,’ she says. ‘We want to ask what they think of what we’re showing them.’
We’ll soon find out.
Memories of the Museum
Fans of the National Museum of Scotland share their memories of the Chambers Street institution.
As a student at Edinburgh Uni, I didn’t go to the Museum much: too busy with lectures and techno. I started coming here properly in the years that followed. After days of repetitive temp work in fluorescent strip-lit offices, and nights spent writing, I needed that kind of quiet stimulation that you can only get from a museum or a gallery. It wasn’t like TV or anything else. There wasn’t anyone telling you what to think, or when to think it. You could make sense of extraordinary things for yourself.
I always had a fondness for the totem pole; how it stood there like a beautiful security guard. And I was amused by the Victorian ram’s head snuff box: a sheep’s skull set with jewels and fitted with casters. Men with lamb-chop whiskers must have rolled it down the dining table, flipped the skull lid open, dipped their well-bred fingers in and talked of women and Empire. I couldn’t help laughing at the poor unasked-for fate of that sheep whizzing up and down across polished mahogany instead of open fields.
I’ve seen books made from human skin, beautiful birds of paradise, and mannequins of spirit spouses. Still, my best experience of the museum is one that never happened. I had a dream, and in my dream, I woke up to find that it was morning, and that I was wrapped in my duvet in the middle of the Museum. It was perfectly peaceful, and it was my home.
Sophie Cooke’s second novel, Under the Mountain, is out now, published by Random House.
I studied architecture at Edinburgh University on Chambers Street, just across the road from the Museum – or rather, I avoided studying architecture there, skiving classes and flunking hand-ins. Instead I crossed the road and sat fretting in the great court of the Museum, wondering how I could possibly survive in the world as an inveterate flunker. In my existential gloom I took solace in chatting to the great court’s goldfish, watching them swim lazily in their pools.
Ah, the goldfish! What those charged with the transformation of this great building will least want remembered – this great space and this great institution, with one of the world’s great natural history collections, and people like me get all maudlin about it losing its focus on some damn goldfish ponds!
But I do love that space. I love the humane, light-and-people-filled grandeur of its interior, and how it contrasts so markedly with the grim symmetry of its exterior. People try to characterise historic architectures as always friendly, and kind to their surroundings, but this great lump gives the lie to this.
And I even have fond memories of it that have nothing to do with goldfish – Tommy Smith performing at some big dinner beano, playing a solo saxophone big band with the rolling echoes of the room.
I look forward to memories to come.
Malcolm Fraser will be talking at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Charlotte Square Gardens, Mon 15 Aug, 8.30pm.
I spent a lot of time at the Museum when I was a kid. I used to go during the school holidays, when they’d host art competitions. At the end there’d be a wee exhibition of the pictures. Kids would be scattered around, sitting on the floor, drawing tigers, or whatever else they liked. That’s something the Museum has remained very good at, encouraging kids to take part.
I was a big fan of the mineral rooms when I was wee. I remember, in particular, the rocks that lit up when you put them under ultraviolet light. Also among my favourites were the Egyptian mummies, and the miniature recreation of a goods yard that had models that moved when you pressed buttons. Things that moved and lit up and made sounds seemed very magical in the days before computers and all that.
I’ve visited lots of the London museums, which are fantastic, but they’re always crammed with visitors, whereas Edinburgh’s museums are popular without being over-subscribed. Go to the National Museum of Scotland at any time of day, you’ll never find yourself overwhelmed. It’s like a cathedral, with huge open spaces and amazing light.
Of course, the first thing anyone mentions is the fish; it’s sad that they won’t be there any more, but I’m still looking forward to the reopening, and hoping they’ve created something as impressive as the original.
Ewen Bremner appears in the films Page Eight, and Perfect Sense, both out later this year.
As the National Museum of Scotland opens its doors, we hand pick some highlights
Prepare to be impressed as the Museum finally opens its doors to the public. Check out the on-street entertainment on Chambers Street from 9.15am, with doors opening at 10am.
Fri 29 July, free.
In association with Live Music Scotland, this series of free daily lunchtime concerts in the Grand Gallery features a varied line-up, including traditional Scottish and international music styles.
Sat 6–Fri 26 Aug, 12.45pm (45 minutes), free.
Bringing the Edinburgh International Festival to the Museum for the first time, the voices and instruments of the Langa and Manganiyar desert communities are brought to life at the heart of the Grand Gallery. Look out too for more evening events in the Museum later in the year.
Sat 27–Mon 29 Aug (times vary), £17.50 (£8.75).
Pick from an array of Edinburgh Art Festival events, including Raiding the Icebox, panel discussions about how museum collections are a continuing source of inspiration for contemporary artists, and No Show, a screening of artists’ films on collections and museums.
Sat 6–Sun 7 Aug.
While the new galleries will be the focus for most, don’t forget the modern building, telling the story of Scotland, from Pictish Stones to Dolly the Sheep. Still running, this exhibition showcases a collection of modern glass recently gifted to National Museums Scotland by Alan J Poole and Dan Klein.
Daily, Until Sun 11 Sep.