One-stop history shop

See every major part of the past 100 years of Scottish history brought to life. Deedee Cuddihy reports

In an ideal world, every school in the country would have its own replica of "Scotland: A Changing Nation", a new gallery which has opened at the National Museum of Scotland in Chambers Street, Edinburgh.

It's a kind of one-stop shop of the history of every major aspect of Scottish life over the past 100 years; a 3D encyclopaedia with film, sound and objects, covering every subject from health and industry to politics, sport and show business.

The permanent exhibition is divided into seven main themes, with each divided into several sub-themes. "Industry", for instance, looks at shipbuilding, fishing, textiles, Silicon Glen, energy, whisky and finance.

Every main theme begins with a brief, easy-to-understand introduction, an overview of the subject and how things stand now, in 2008. Sub-themes are treated in the same way and are brought to life with personal stories, images, objects and simple interactives.

In the shipbuilding section, for example, the printed words and images are complemented by archive film of the shipyards plus objects that can be touched, such as a massive piece of drag chain, a riveting gun and a section of sheet steel. A welder's thick leather gloves and helmet can be tried on and there is a personal account by a young female graduate engineer of what it is like to work in the Scottish shipbuilding industry today.

The curators of "Scotland: A Changing Nation" have managed to gather a remarkable collection of artefacts for this exhibition, many of which have never been displayed, a number having been borrowed from private individuals or other institutions.

For instance, a chunky jacket made out of what looks like a horse blanket, with unusually large buttons, turns out to be part of a suit that a bricklayer, Andrew Nesbit, had made for his wife, out of tweed bought from weavers on St Kilda after he travelled to the island in 1918 to work on a Ministry of Defence project - some 12 years before the island was permanently evacuated.

The fishing industry is brought up to date with a display of the attractive wooden boxes which a company in Bellshill, Lanarkshire, uses to package shellfish, much of which goes for export. A clever interactive in this section invites visitors to pick a plastic fish from a box and see if it measures up to legal standards - or would have to be thrown back into the sea.

"Scotland: A Changing Nation" does not ignore the difficult aspects of the past 100 years. In the "Energy" section, for example, there is an impressive large-scale model of a North Sea oil rig - but there are also some sketches of Piper Alpha oil rig workers, made by artist Sue Jane Taylor when she visited the rig in 1987, the year before it blew up, killing 167 men.

The sketches are shown alongside the Piper Alpha safety certificates that she, and several workers, received just months before the fatal explosion.

With every major theme a mini-exhibition in itself, there is no way a visitor can do justice to this show in one day. There is simply too much to take in. Schools - for which an education programme is being drawn up - would be advised to tackle just one or two sections per group.

The moving image is a significant element in this exhibition and a specially commissioned film, One Nation, Five Million Voices, running in a darkened area of the gallery, shows dozens of Scots, of all ages and from all over, saying what they like and don't like about Scotland.

Famous Scots, from Sir Harry Lauder, through Francie and Josie, to Annie Lennox and the Proclaimers, feature in another film playing in a mini- cinema setting (complete with old-style seats) in the show biz and arts sub-section of "Daily Life".

There is something oddly familiar about the mini-gallery that has been created for the "Scottish Sports Hall of Fame" part of the exhibition. And then you realise it has been designed to look like a typical high-street sports shop - only this one is filled from floor to ceiling with dozens of celebrity photographs and iconic sports objects, such as Sir Jackie Stewart's tartan-trimmed crash helmet.

And so to politics, "Voice of the People", which should not be missed. If you ever wondered why Mrs Thatcher has never been particularly popular north of the border, this exhibition reminds visitors that she was the Prime Minister who said, in 1990: "We English, who are marvellous people, are really very generous to Scotland."

Madame Tussauds may not have a wax work of Gordon Brown (yet), but you can see the blue suit he wore when delivering his first Budget speech (which doesn't look as if it would fit him now).

Tracking devolution through the 1990s, to the founding of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, "Voice of the People" aims to "stimulate thought and debate around the changing nature of politics in Scotland today".

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War: what was Scotland's experience of both World Wars? How did they impact on daily life?

Industry: trace the evolution of industry in Scotland

Leaving Scotland: during the 20th century around two million Scots chose to leave their homeland.

Daily life: from retro furniture to modern Smeg appliances, discover the changes that have transformed Scottish life

Voice of the people: examine the changing nature of politics during the last century

Today and tomorrow: celebrate Scotland's achievements past, present and future

'One Nation, Five Million Voices': film

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