Tag Archives: Curiosity

Cabinets of Curiosity

3 Apr

The Reopening of The National Museum of Scotland

Perhaps, like myself, you visited The National Museum of Scotland as a child – and gaped upwards in wonder (or terror!) at lions and elephants, Egyptian sarcophagi and the fossilised remains of prehistoric monsters. Or perhaps you once ran in for shelter on a rainy day, and then stayed for an entire afternoon – throwing a few thoughtful pennies into the fishpond on your way out.  Certainly a great many Scots and international visitors alike share cherished memories of this incredible building and its astonishing menagerie of curiosities.  Last year saw the reopening of the 150 year old museum on Chambers Street after a three year, £47.4 million redevelopment project.  I went to have a look around the revitalised museum to see if all of that  childhood curiosity was reignited.

              It goes without saying that each time you turn a corner in Edinburgh’s city centre you are greeted with buildings of quality, both historic and modern. But even in a place where so many grand structures are vying for your attention the National Museum is a stand out;  the grand steps, the formidable stone edifice, the gigantic windows make a remarkable impression – and that’s just the outside. As you climb up the steps and enter inside you step into the Grand Gallery, a monumental space, reminiscent of a vast birdcage, which even on dull days is filled with spectral light. As a result of the extensive building renovations visitors can now also enter at street level, down into a cavernous stone entrance hall, six tennis courts wide, which was previously used as a storage facility. The contrast between these two atmospheric spaces is fascinating, an exhibit in itself, and the work put into realise the new and improved design truly staggering. During the renovation of the lower level of the museum around one million items were moved from Chambers Street to the National Museum’s collection centre in Granton – which gives some idea of the scale of the task.


What is apparent when you look at the figures – 16 new galleries, 13,000 square metres of new public space, £47.4 million spent – is that this really is a once in a lifetime transformation: the most significant redevelopment to the museum in over a century.

The Grade A listed building has enjoyed a rich and varied history. It was designed by visionary engineer Captain Francis Fowke, architect of the Royal Albert Hall, and local architect Robert Matheson in the aftermath of the Scottish Enlightenment. Originally established as the Industrial Museum of Scotland in 1854, it was inspired by London’s Crystal Palace, home of the Great Exhibition.

The foundation stone was laid 150 years ago, in 1861, and the east wing was opened in 1866 by Prince Alfred, by which time it had become the Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art. By the building’s jubilee in 1904 it had become the Royal Scottish Museum. And in 1998 the building was extended, to tell the country’s history from earliest times to the present day. This latest development creates a newly integrated and international National Museum of Scotland in the heart of Edinburgh – a pivotal step in a long tradition of evolution.

One notable casualty of the new development that I have to mention though is the museum’s beloved fish pond, which has been removed to utilise the central space in the grand gallery.  But don’t be alarmed: I have been assured that no fish were harmed (or, indeed, pan fried) during the project; they were all safely whisked away to a new home in England.

While some old moaners (like me) may bemoan the disappearance of the fishpond, new visitors cannot fail to be impressed by the ‘Window on the World’, an eighteen metre tall installation that spans from the bottom of building right up to the rooftops. This is now the largest single museum installation in the UK. The ‘Window on the World’ is essentially an enormous cabinet that showcases extraordinary objects from across the collections of the National Museums of Scotland. The idea relates to the 19th century and the gentlemanly pursuit of a assembling a ‘cabinet of curiosities’. In their country houses, men of wealth and taste would put together collections of rare and exotic objects from all corners of the world for the pleasure of themselves and their guests. Riffing on this idea of miscellany and assortment the museum curators have fashioned an opportunity to illustrate in fantastic, iconic style what a diverse collection they have at their disposal; something in the region of four million objects. Thus we look up and find a 1930s gyrocopter, a girder from the Tay Bridge and the enormous jaws of a sperm whale inscribed with ornate ‘scrimshaw’ artwork sitting quirkily side by side.

Moving down from the ‘Window on The World’ the eye catches the Grand Gallery floor, which is a masterpiece of gravitas and understatement. Just five or six objects stand in the huge space  including a lighthouse lens by David Stevenson (grandfather of Robert Louis), a statue of James Watt which used to be in Westminster Abbey and the 3 metre-high skeleton of a prehistoric deer.

Other highlights include the Discoveries gallery in the centre of the building – another major architectural feature – which provides a dramatic new home for one of the Museum’s most popular exhibits, the Millennium Clock. Opening up long-forgotten archways, this space draws visitors through to the exhibitions and an expanded three-storey Learning Centre, which features new studios, event spaces and an upgraded auditorium. A series of balconies, walkways and escalators improve visitor circulation and provide dramatic views, both of the architecture and the displays. Here you will be able to find the world’s oldest surviving colour television, developed by John Logie Baird and a fossilised tree slice collected by John Muir from the Petrified Forest National Park.

The extensive vision of this development is breathtaking, and like all of the world’s great museums it would take many many visits to take it all in. Plenty then to reawaken those childhood memories. Kids and adults alike will do well not to be spellbound by it all.

The £47.4 million redevelopment, has been jointly funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund (£17.8 million), and the Scottish Government (£16 million), with a further £13.6 million from private sources.