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Beyond Rob Roy;Scottish Heritage

Popular images of Scotland's history have no doubt been influenced by Hollywood. But the country's first national museum is looking to help Scots rediscover their past and engender some historical realism. Julie Morrice reports

Scotland has waited a long time for a museum dedicated to its own history. You could date the Museum of Scotland project from 1780 when the national collection was started; or from 1858 when the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland was established; or from 1952 when the site next to the Royal Scottish Museum in Edinburgh was identified. But it was not until 1990 that the project really got going.

It is now due to open on November 30, St Andrew's Day, and the building's basic structure is there, amid bags of cement, blocks of stone and endless curtains of shiny scaffolding.

Some of the largest exhibits are already in place, encased in wooden crates. Stone masons are at work within the modern shell, recreating structures of the 18th century. Glass-fronted display cases stand in the middle of the dust and concrete, waiting to house ancient treasures.

The building - from its boat-shaped roof and telescoped views of Edinburgh to its vast, geometric gallery spaces and clever use of natural light - is a marvel of modern, human-centred design.

But the Museum of Scotland's concept and content go a long way beyond sophisticated architecture: if it lives up to the ambitions of its curators, the museum will change the way Scots feel about their past and themselves.

Dr David Clarke came to Edinburgh in 1968 when the new museum was first mooted. Thirty years on, he is head of exhibitions there and hardly able to believe his luck. "Most curators, if they get a major gallery to do in a lifetime, they're doing well. But an entire museum, a national museum. It's phenomenal.'' The lack of a Scottish dimension to the national museums has, he says, been "a serious weakness, for how do you weigh up other cultures when you know nothing about your own?" Clarke, bearded and blunt, is quick to point out the standard failings of British museums. "Most present objects as art history: 'Look at this object, isn't it wonderful.' There is no conceptual structure, no concern with overall storyline. It's not about real dialogue or engagement.'' No wonder, he says, people get museum fatigue, when their presentation is "a one-way chant, usually a monotone".

He likens a positive museum experience to listening to a radio adaptation of a book you haven't read. The museum sketches in the scene, as a radio play hints at a setting, leaving the rest to be fleshed out by the observer's or listener's imagination.

"The key is putting objects in a relationship with each other. We display a cauldron, and above it we suspend the flesh hook that would have been used to hoick out the bits of meat. Then beside it we put the bucket that would have had the booze in it; and the ladle and cups for doling it out. Then, in your imagination, you construct the hall, the people, the noise, the smells.

"People have to bring their experience and imagination to bear. This will not be the sort of heritage site created by those who believe there is one true picture of the past. It's about really experiencing the real object. We may not let you handle it, smell it, touch it; but we do let you see it."

The Museum of Scotland traces the nation's development from the era of rocks and fossils up to the present day. David Clarke's particular area of interest is Early People, the part of the museum which deals with Scotland's earliest inhabitants.

Inevitably, the material history from that period is full of gaps. Where a traditional museum would have filled those gaps with labels ("a sensational combination of trivia and non-information," scoffs Clarke), this exhibition bridges the divide with living art.

Andy Goldsworthy, doyen of environmental sculpture, has been let loose in Clarke's gallery. He is building curved slate walls to represent the early inhabitants' traditional dwellings, and will build clay walls imbedded with objects to suggest the process of disappearance and discovery which the museum's artefacts have gone through en route to the display case. He will do something, as yet unspecified, with the skeleton of a pilot whale; and he will construct a wickerwork container for a wooden idol dating from between 750 and 500 BC.

This is radical stuff for a museum, and it pulls the gallery out of the realm of dust and dead civilisations into a framework which says, as Clarke would have it, "these are just people like you and me". The rub is that there are practically no images of these people. With no tradition of using the human form in decoration, the earliest Scots have left no trace of their looks, except in the jewellery they wore. Clarke was adamant that people must be central to the gallery, but how to represent them?

In the end, he has commissioned Eduardo Paolozzi to make 12 figures which will stand at the entrance to the gallery. The figures will have little cases set into them containing the ancient jewellery dug up from archaeological sites. "They will be a little bit above life size," says Clarke. "They're intended to look down on you, to say: 'We're not grunting savages. We don't need your sympathy.'" Time travels vertically in the Museum of Scotland. From Early Peoples in the lower basement, history climbs through galleries dedicated to Scotland's landscape, and to the "Kingdom of the Scots: 1100-1707", where the entrance will be guarded by the huge ninth-century Dupplin Cross, brought indoors from its field north of Perth while the Secretary of State decides on its long term future.

Up another floor and we arrive at "Industry amp; Empire: 1707-1914". Here, history is a different beast, documented, catalogued, saved for the nation. Yet George Dalgleish, exhibitions co-ordinator of the 18th and 19th centuries, points out that, here too, we only get a partial picture. "Certain things survive because they are inherently precious or valued, or because they belong to a certain level of society. You are struggling to get material from ordinary people, and so you get a skewing of evidence."

Curators throughout the museum identify the problem of public perception being wide of the reality, particularly since most adult Scots have learned their nation's history in the cinema rather than the classroom. "People's expectations post-Braveheart and Rob Roy are that not only should we know exactly what William Wallace looked like, but also how often he changed his underwear," says Dalgleish. "Yet we have no objects related to Wallace. You'd be surprised how little historical costume survives from the 17th century and before. Things are remade, reused, or they simply fall to bits."

The Industry amp; Empire galleries are dominated by huge exhibits: the Ellesmere Locomotive, built in Leith in 1861, and the 30ft high Newcomen Pumping Engine. Here is the evidence of Scotland's technical mastery.

But, again, the gaps left by time's decay are being filled. An 18th century cruck-framed house salvaged from Dunbartonshire is being recreated. The huge split timbers are genuine, but the stonework and heather thatching are reconstructions using original techniques.

The panelled Edinburgh drawing-room of the same period has gone through a similar process. The panels, painted with landscapes by the Norie family in the 18th century, were discovered in the 1960s under 14 layers of paint. Restored by Historic Scotland, they are now housed in a reconstruction of the original room.

"We only use reconstructions to give context to the original object," says Dalgleish. "We're keen to point people to the sites where the objects come from, and to other collections. We see this building as a hub with spokes leading out all over the country. If we make people realise that there is history to be seen in their own environment, then we have succeeded."

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