Scotland: A Changing Nation
Kirstin Innes gets a sneak preview of Scotland: A Changing Nation, a major new exhibition that tells the nation’s story from the 20th century onwards, through pop culture, poetry, politics and Proclaimers lyrics
‘I don’t want to blow our own trumpet, or anything,’ says Maureen Barrie, standing with her arms spread in front of a blank wall that will shortly be emblazoned with a giant replica of a Tunnock’s Teacake, ‘but we’re a hell of a nation if you think about it.’
Barrie is responsible for bringing together the National Museum of Scotland’s newest permanent exhibition, which has taken three years to gestate and opens this fortnight. Taking up a whole gallery in the new part of the Museum, just underneath The Tower restaurant, Scotland: A Changing Nation looks at the massive changes wrought on the country in the 20th and 21st centuries. And, as the presence of a giant Tunnock’s Teacake might indicate, this new exhibition is much more than a dusty set of boxed-off, didatically-appendixed glass cases.
‘We didn’t want to use this gallery to tell people a complete history,’ says Barrie. ‘No-one can tell the whole of this last century in Scotland; it’s not possible. What we wanted to do was look at themes that have affected and shaped people’s lives, both in Scotland and globally. And we’re using everything we can to explore those themes; poetry, paintings, personal individual stories, projections, historic artefacts, Irn Bru adverts, music and specially commissioned films, archive footage, even Proclaimers’ lyrics!’
She’s serious – the lyrics to ‘Letter from America’ and ‘Scotland’s Story’ are projected all over the gallery, offering pop-culture context on the exhibits and summing up the accessible, hands-on approach the curators have taken to their very broad subject. However, they’ve also achieved a very delicate balance, examining and celebrating Scotland without recourse to either out-and-out Nationalist grandstanding or the kind of ‘cultural cringe’ recently derided in Jack McConnell’s national slogan: ‘The best (small) country in the world’.
‘Look at this,’ says Barrie as we enter the section on health and housing. ‘There’s a wonderful set up here: cigarette coupons from the 1960s, that you saved up to buy this deep fat fryer. So there you go, smoking and fatty food. Oh, we’re just a terrific country! Just wonderful! But then, in this gallery we very much want to say ‘Yes, there are flaws in Scotland. Yes, we have problems. But my god, we rise to a challenge.’ If there’s something wrong, we effect change, and we adapt. And this whole gallery is about continuity and change. The history of the 21st Century hasn’t been set yet, and we’re hoping that the gallery will evolve around it.’
She prepares to set off round the gallery again, dodging the plastic sheeting and drill cables that will soon make way for one of the most ambitious exhibitions in the Museum’s history.
‘Look at these objects. Read these people’s stories. Look at what we’ve got here. You know, maybe the trouble with Scots is that we don’t want to blow our own trumpet enough.’
‘The First World War was one of the earliest events in the 20th Century to effect major change,’ says Barrie, ‘so it made sense to start the exhibition looking at a theme that can cause that sort of upheaval’.
Alongside recruitment posters showing how the cheery kilted figure of the Scottish Soldier was made into a cult icon, there are personal histories from pipers, emancipated female ambulance drivers and one from a girl who started corresponding with the troops during WW2.
‘She got a letter back from an 18 year-old serving in the Arctic convoy. We’ve got the letters here. He’s saying, ‘I was a boy, and now I’m a man.’ The rate of survival on those ships was pretty grim, you know. She was 12 years-old, getting this letter and her emotions were going all over the place. And I defy anyone reading that correspondence, from 60 years ago, between these two kids whose lives were changing for ever, not to feel it. That’s the kind of heart-wrenching wee personal stories we’ve found, that we want people to see in this gallery.’
‘Oh, where do you start with Scottish entertainers?’ asks Barrie. ‘There’s such a wealth! Stanley Baxter to Sharleen Spiteri, JK Rowling, Oor Wullie, Moira Shearer, The Corries and The Bay City Rollers. Can’t forget them, they were the first boy band. Yes, we invented the boy band. Let’s claim that one as well!’
Many of the figures she mentions have donated artefacts to the gallery. A pair of tartan-trimmed Rollers breeks hang beside a set of signed Harry Potters translated into Latin and Mandarin, the costume Lulu wore on stage with Take That for ‘Relight My Fire’, and, in a part of the gallery dressed like a 1930s cinema, visitors can watch a quick history of Scottish culture from Stanley Baxter to Franz Ferdinand (who have donated their Mercury Music Prize gong to the gallery).
Filled up with furniture, televisions and cosily retro brand names, the Homes section looks at the changes precipitated by increasing technology -- you can go from a mesh-fronted meat safe to a Smeg fridge in four easy steps -- and poses questions about Scotland’s people based on the things they bring into their homes. There are stained glass windows from 1930s tenements, a traditional sideboard, rescued from a Glasgow junk shop and decorated by the artist John Byrne, and what Barrie describes as a ‘sort of monstrous’ sculptural throne made from scaffolding in the 1980s.
You’ll find the blown up Tunnock’s Teacake here, in a sub-section called ‘Going For the Messages’, which looks at wur ain wee brands like Irn Bru and Baxter’s Soup, and shows how they were advertised at home and abroad.
The largest section in the gallery contains everything from haute couture clothing made out of Harris Tweed for Dior to one of the last Hillman Imp cars made at the Linwood factory. There are final payslips from Ravenscraig, and no-longer-needed protective clothing from the disused coal mines at Bathgate.
‘This is where we’re going to have the Proclaimers lyrics,’ Barrie explains. ‘“Linwood no more, Bathgate no more . . .” This is immediate, recent history: it’s still in living memory, but there are so many younger people who might not be aware of what happened. I hope they’ll know the song though.’
She moves on, describing with her hands where a huge, floor-to-ceiling silicon ingot representing Silicon Glen and Scotland’s burgeoning computer game industry will stand. ‘It looks like watered mercury. It’s beautiful, quite incredible. Of course, the assembly lines closed down, because production is so much cheaper in other countries, but we still had all that technology and creativity, and that’s the great thing. We want to show how all that technology has been channeled into new industries, like computer games. We’ve got a display here about Grand Theft Auto. I don’t think people realise that those games are designed and made in Scotland. I think most people assume that Grand Theft Auto is an American thing. I certainly did. And it’s not. It’s Scottish. And that’s great.’
Suddenly we are standing amid models of oil rigs, a neon-lit glass sculpture of the Dounreay power station, and paintings of men at work.
‘These were painted on Piper Alpha. An artist called Sue Jane Taylor just happened to be there, six months before the explosion. It’s the 20th anniversary of that disaster this year, so using these paintings seemed like a very fitting, appropriate, wonderful memorial to those men.’
Although this section of the gallery does contain mementos from particular figures in Scottish political history – Gordon Brown has donated a suit from his days as chancellor – the emphasis here is very much on the personal as political.
‘Here we’ve got a suffragette’s banner, here there’s going to be information on the rent strikes and the anti-poll tax riots,’ says Barrie. ‘We also want to look at the Zero Tolerance campaign in Edinburgh and Nil by Mouth in Glasgow, both of them set up very much at grassroots level, combatting domestic violence and sectarianism. There are these dark sides to Scotland, and we don’t want to hide from that, but at the same time we really want to show the difference that just one person with the will to overcome can make.’
One of the biggest final set pieces of the gallery looks at first like some plastic sheeting and scaffolding left over by the builders. However, it’s one of the most significant recent artefacts of national history.
‘This is the tent that activists took round Scotland to raise awareness about the campaign for devolution and getting our own parliament,’ says Barrie. ‘If you climb up and have a look inside, you’ll see that we’ve got a full model of the final Scottish Parliament building, but it’s significant that it’s inside the tent. It doesn’t matter what you start with, it’s about what you can do. And even if you achieve a building like the Scottish Parliament at the end of it, I think it’s important that you don’t forget the tent.’
Scotland: A Changing Nation opens at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, Fri 11 Jul.