Gordon Rintoul

22nd February 2013 at 00:00
The director of National Museums Scotland talks about the secret to delivering a #163;47 million refurbishment on time, the success of schools programmes and his plans for a further eight galleries. Interview by Elizabeth Buie, Photography by David Gordon

As director of National Museums Scotland, do you work in cooperation with museums around the country when there is an anniversary like this year's David Livingstone bicentenary? Are there ways you can use your national resources for regional benefit?

A key thing about the National Museum of Scotland that marks it out from counterparts in England is that for many decades we've always reached out across the country in terms of loans. We're currently hosting the main celebration of Livingstone's life, work and impact, and that's been done in collaboration with the David Livingstone Centre in Blantyre, which is run by the National Trust. But at any one time, there are something like 2,500 items on loan from the national collection to about 100 locations across Scotland.

A few critics complained that the revamp of the National Museum of Scotland 'dumbed down' the quality of the exhibitions - how do you react?

Just because we try to avoid too many long, complicated words or terms that most people won't understand doesn't mean we're dumbing down. We have got a huge range of visitors, in age terms, and in terms of different backgrounds and experiences. That's why in all our exhibitions we layer the information.

Do you have a favourite exhibit?

Several - but among these would have to be Concorde, for the fact that it was such a complicated project and we managed to secure one for Scotland. And at the other end of the scale, in terms of size, the Nobel Prize gold medal awarded to Alexander Fleming for discovering penicillin.

Delivering a #163;47 million refurbishment on time and on budget is generally regarded as a feat - how did you do it?

We had a strong sense of what we wanted to achieve. We had clear plans and we stuck to our plans. Too often, people when they are managing projects, give way to the temptation to add things on or change things as they are going along and that results in more time and more money.

Your schools programmes at the National Museum of Scotland have expanded greatly, but is there a demand for more?

I think there is, but I think there are some challenges there. Schools have found it increasingly difficult to plan a visit to museums, partly because for older children the curriculum has tended to be more restrictive than a number of years ago. But also the sheer cost is an issue as well, particularly the cost of coach travel.

From schools' feedback, what do pupils enjoy most about their visits here?

Just the experience. That sounds a bit nebulous, but it was brought home to me when we did a project with some schools in Fife, where the children had never in their lives been to a museum and when they came to the museum they were amazed.

Are there other challenges in engaging schools?

The value of museums as part of the whole education framework isn't always recognised strongly enough. More thought could be given to the value of visits to museums by schools - and the fact that museums can really add value to delivery of the curriculum.

What do your plans for a further eight galleries involve?

The changes we have already made have focused on transforming the building, putting the natural sciences and world cultures collections in new displays. What we are now going to do is create new galleries on science and technology and on European art and design.

With the recent announcement that the National Museum of Costume at Shambellie House is to close, was it a mistake to move the collection to Dumfries and Galloway?

Quite a part of the collection actually came from a collector there. But closing the museum was a difficult decision. We're living in challenging times in the public sector and we sometimes have to make difficult choices. A key thing is that alongside the closure of that actual site, what we plan to do is enhance our activities considerably in that region in other ways.

In what way?

We aim to do more in the way of loans, providing more touring exhibitions, and other similar initiatives.

Which museums did you visit as a child and what impact did they have?

Like almost every other child in Glasgow, when I was growing up, it was Kelvingrove. The things I was most interested in were the ship models and other mechanical and technical things. They inspired me to build model boats when I was a boy.

Why is Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, one of the most visited in the UK, not recognised as a national museum?

Because it's run by the local authority. I think you've got to distinguish between how something is funded and how important it is in terms of its collections.

Do you think its ownership will ever change? Is it appropriate for a local authority to run such a huge gallery?

There are all sorts of museums across Scotland, the UK and, internationally, run by all sorts of institutions. It's less about who the owner is and more about whether the collections are cared for and made accessible.


Born: Glasgow, 1955

Education: Allan Glen's School, Glasgow; BSc in physics, University of Edinburgh; MSc in science, technology and society, and PhD in history, science and technology, University of Manchester

Career: Curator of the Colour Museum, Bradford; director of the Catalyst Museum on the chemical industry, Widnes; chief executive of the Sheffield Museums Trust; director of National Museums Scotland (2002-).

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