On Friday (29th July) Edinburgh reopened one of its best attractions. After three years and £47 million of redevelopments the National Museum of Scotland is finally open to the public once again. The goal of the redevelopment was “transforming the magnificent Victorian part of the National Museum of Scotland (formerly the Royal Museum) into a must-see attraction for people from Scotland and around the world.”*
I went for a ‘quick look around’ the following day when I was in town, just to see what they had done. I left over three hours later. The Victorian section has indeed been transformed and is most certainly magnificent. So as not to clutter this up too much I have included only a few pictures, to view the whole set go to flickr by clicking here.
Entering the building through the new, street level, entrance you immediately realise that this museum is seriously big. Although not particularly high, it is the length of the vaulted expanse, with its glass staircases and lifts contrasting the stone, which tells you that you are in a Victorian museum with a distinct 21st century vintage. I was greeted by a very friendly member of staff and given a map and pamphlet that I promptly put in my back pocket so I wouldn’t get distracted in my whistle stop tour. Whoops… I also got a badge as well with a Baboon on it, but I’m afraid they were for the first weekend only.
Taking the staircase up from the cellarly entrance you are taken to the atrium, the old entrance hall which has been properly restored to become what it was originally meant to be – The Grand Gallery. The lack of fish ponds aside I have to say that looking up I got the same sense of awe as I did as a little kid. The mammoth gallery is a masterpiece of Victorian architecture; with it’s huge vaulted glass ceiling (based on the original Crystal Palace) and now lets in an extraordinary amount of light. This feeling of space is definitely a theme running through the galleries and despite being there on the second day I didn’t feel as though I was sandwiched in the middle of a crowd, despite the throng of people there`.
The first gallery I headed to was one of my favourites in the old museum – Science and Technology. This one is aimed at connecting kids (of all ages) to the science of the exhibits, mainly through hands-on exhibits, and exciting things such as rockets and racing cars. I think I was roughly about ten years old for the duration of my time in this gallery. Turning slowly on her pedestal in pride of place is one of the gallery’s (if not themuseum’s) most important pieces of recent times – Dolly the Sheep. For those who are not aware, in 1996 Dolly became the first mammal to be cloned from an adult somatic cell (in this case a mammary gland cell) and thus was instrumental in proving that a cell from a specific part of the body could recreate the entire body. She resides in the NMS because she was created by the Roslin institue which is located just outside Edinburgh.
With the obvious appeal of the exhibits sitting on the floor, there is also a lot of reason to look up in here. There is a rocket towering up through all three floors at one end, and a satellite hanging at the other. Alongside the satellite there is also a gyroplane – a bizarre looking invention, with both wings and rotor blades, that would eventually give rise to the helicopter. This particular one was one of the first to ever be built, and was constructed in Perthshire.
I have to say that the ‘Industry’ gallery doesn’t look much different, however, I would at least partially down to the nature of the exhibits in it. Many of the items of interest in here were the dizzying height of technological achievement in their day, but now they just look a bit bulky. What I find most interesting about this gallery is the evolution of technology, and how much of it originally arose out of necessity, but went on to flourish. It also makes me wonder if the makers of some of these objects ever imagined the impact they’d have on modern life (mobile phones, down to the radio), or if they ever thought that their device would end up in a museum. The case that shocked me most was the last one. In it sit an old iMac computer, and a Sony PlayStation. I remember both of these when they were new, and things that came before them. Surely these aren’t old enough to be in a museum? Or perhaps am I just getting older too?
One of the biggest draws of the museum (and consequently rather busy) was always, and continues to be the ‘Animal World’ gallery. The new incarnation was utterly packed when I visited – both with exhibits and visitors – and there are some spectacular exhibits on display. There were loads of kids jumping about, all very excitable, with the accompanying adults all looking like they’d quite like to do the same. Hardly surprising really, with a T. rex, an elephant, a giraffe and a whole ‘family’ (not going to be the biologist do a full explanation on that) of lions it is clearly designed to excite kids both young and old.
My only one criticism (and I admit, I probably only say it because I’m a pedantic biologist) is that the layout is rather lacking a proper scientific layout. Whilst I can see the intrinsic value in ‘senses’ section – it does make sense putting items together that have similar hearing styles (for example) – why is there a section on ‘babies’ and the rest put around the floor in what appears to be a very tenuous aggregations? Surely there is much more educational merit in putting the ‘baby’ alongside their ‘parents’ (as in the lions), and sort the majority of the collection along some sort of taxonomic order? Seemingly not. Having raised this question on Twitter I was (rather condescendingly) informed (by a member of museum staff, on a personal account, so ‘not representing the NMS’) that it was developed by “extremely well-qualified zoologists” and whilst I do not doubt this, I feel there may have been designers involved along the way, who might have pushed it in certain directions. Also, without further description of said zoologists’ qualifications I have to point out that I could describe myself as that, so perhaps it is not such an impertinent question after all.
All of this, however, must not be taken as my dismissal of the gallery – I did enjoy it. For what it is, I think they have done a fantastic job. I appreciate the intrinsic value of teaching visitors about convergent evolution and so on, it’s just not how I expected it to look.
I passed through most of the other galleries at a fair speed – you’ll probably be glad to hear – the only other exception being my other old favourite: Ancient Egypt. Call me slightly pathetic, if you will, but I’ve been fascinated by the ancient Egyptians since we did a project on them in primary school. The new gallery, I’m very pleased to say, is light-years on from how I remember the old one. In the museum of old, I remember it being a small corner gallery (it’s a bit of a hazy memory, so I may be mistaken), so I was glad to see its new spacious third floor expanse. The collection of smaller items (idols, figurines, etc.) is truly astounding, as are the hieroglyphic papyruses and carved stone exhibits. I also like the dioramas depicting scenes around temples and the building of a pyramid. Special mention, however, has to go to the collection of sarcophaguses on display: they are fantastic, and something I will have to learn more about on my next visit.
My favourite moment in this gallery, however, was none of the above. It wasn’t even an exhibit – it was a person looking around. To be more specific, a little boy, who clearly had no interest and was blatantly rather bored, despite the tour he was getting from his parents. Whilst they were extremely well-informed individuals, I get the impression that this had happened in every gallery and the little boy had had enough. He, very earnestly, pointed towards one case and turned to his dad and asked: “Daddy, why does that little boy in the painting look so confused? Is it because his daddy was a mummy?” Cue mortified parents and a crowd of people all doing their up most not to laugh (but failing miserably in several cases).
In summary (if you’ve got this far, sorry it was a bit long winded) I think the ‘new’ museum is truly fantastic. The Grand Gallery is just that – a feature, more than just a glassy atrium and entrance (as it was previously). I really like its extension down into the ‘vaults’, and back towards Potter Row – the Millennium Clock looks like it was designed specifically for its new spot – and the five-floor display case is truly a sight to behold. The Grand Gallery is now the sun-drenched centre-piece of a truly wonderful museum. The once dark, tired, cramped museum has indeed been transformed into the light, airy, vibrant, 21st century museum it should be, and is most certainly a must-see for everyone, be they a local or from the other side of the world. I cannot wait until my next visit.