Discover the treasures in the tower

28th April 2000 at 01:00
TO THE passer-by, the new Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh makes a strong and handsome architectural statement. Its circular bastion tower in glorious golden stone, punctuating the Greyfriars junction with Chambers Street, is satisfyingly reminiscent of that most ancient stronghold in nearby Edinburgh Castle, the King David Tower.

There is a vibrant and redeeming quality about the exterior of the museum which gives a much-needed millennium lift. For in Scotland's capital over the past few decades the reputations of architects and city planners have surely reached their nadir.

Several perfectly terrible buildings have appeared in sensitive and historic sites, and to add technological insult to civic injury the concrete surfaces widely used in the sixties too often appear to be weeping at their own incongruity.

Look at the condition of the new Broughton High, a typical postwar secondary in the lee of the great Victorian structure of Fettes College. Or the new brutalism of the St James Centre with its aerial footbridge polluting the skyline at the top of Leith Walk. Or my own bete noire the monstrously insensitive council building on the junction of George IV Bridge and the Royal Mile.

The interior of the new museum is more controversial. Some of the experienced voluntary guides consider it not to be an easy building. "Try addressing 40 people in one of those stone corridors," I was told. Others consider that architects have had their way at the expense of collection curators, and that the exhibition space will prove eventually too inflexible for future needs.

One area of the new museum may be of particular interest as a resource for primary teachers and their classes - the basement (level 0). Here you will find two exhibitions which contrast quite extraordinarly in their effectiveness, attractiveness and ease of use. The curators could have come from different planets.

"Beginnings" is a fascinating introduction to the story of Scotland's landscape and wildlife as read in the rocks. State of the art videos and interactive IT together with clear timelines bring geological eras to colourful life. Scotland mostly desert like the Sahara today; volcanoes and tropical seas, great ice ages, a shifting Scotland moving north from the South Pole. Buttons to press, good dioramas, lots of parents and children enjoying themselves.

By contrast, on three visits to Early Peoples there was a dearth of visitors. Covering the years 8000 BC to AD 1100, the approach is thematic. There is a startling lack of accessible dates and plenty of those dimly lit and potentially dusty glass cases which seem to turn back the museum clock. With the exception of the Roman invasion and occupation, the sections could largely be from a craft museum, dateless displays on the technology of decorating metal, using bone, preparing skin, shaping stone. The cases abound with statements like "We ate well and gave thanks, our food plentiful and healthy. We cared about what we ate, how it was prepared." Surely a few questions begged here?

Or "In those days we liked to travel". Who were we? What days are we talking about? Did we travel to the next village or did Iron Age travel agents offer some version of the Grand Tour?

The fine groups of Paolozzi figures are incongruous. In the interstices of their huge metal plates nestle tiny unlabelled objects - a black necklace, a bronze bracelet. Could be straight from Accessorize. Timelines and labelling are elsewhere and not easy to track in the gloom. National treasures these may be, but will children bother?


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