The lovely bones

29th July 2011 at 01:00
The dust sheets come off today as the National Museum of Scotland opens its doors after a pound;46.4m revamp. Expect Scottish heroes, interactive galleries - and rex appeal

Slender white columns soar straight up for three floors, then curve across to meet in the middle, high overhead, supporting the glass roof where sunlight streams into the Grand Gallery at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

Around the floor of the vast atrium a set of intriguing objects, shrouded in translucent dust-sheets, are carefully positioned, waiting to be uncovered for the visitors who will pour in when the museum re-opens today (29 July), after a pound;46.4 million redevelopment that has taken three years.

"We've chosen large objects for this space that are interesting and give a taste of what's in the 16 new galleries," says learning manager Emma Webb. "That big pointy one is the Inchkeith Lighthouse lens. Over there is a marble statue of James Watt, showing the way to science and technology.

"Here is a sandstone statue from ancient Nubia that would have stood guard outside a temple. This is a Buddha that belonged to a Scotsman who lived on the Black Isle. That is a Pacific island feast bowl. It belonged to a princess who married two Scottish businessmen.

"The second one, George Darsie, ran a plantation business in the Pacific. The couple moved to Anstruther when he retired and he gave the feast bowl to the museum when Princess Titaua died. That was in the 19th century and this is the first time it's been on display."

The anecdote illustrates some of the themes and guiding principles of the redevelopment of the museum, whose origins lie in the Enlightenment, when the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland first began collecting the country's archaeology. A hundred years later, in 1888, the Chambers Street building, inspired internally by the Crystal Palace, was completed to house the Industrial Museum of Scotland, which later became the Royal Scottish Museum.

In 1985 the Royal and Antiquities museums merged, and in 1998 an extension was built, clad in golden Moray sandstone, to become the new Museum of Scotland, which tells the history of people and cultures from earliest times. Its merger with the Royal Museum in 2007 created the National Museum of Scotland.

The latest redevelopment was focused on the former Royal Museum, the aims being to open up architectural vistas, bring long-hidden objects out of storage, use engaging themes to pull them together, and make the visitor experience more cohesive, enjoyable and interactive.

"There is a strong storytelling theme," Emma says. "Many of the objects have fascinating stories. We have made more paths through the museum. It'll be interesting to see where visitors go from here. Many will be drawn into the Natural World galleries by Tyrannosaurus rex, which you can see over there."

The huge head of the king of the dinosaurs, a tooth-filled tearing machine, towers above the visitor, looking every bit as fierce as his reputation. But is it a male? How can anyone tell its sex, 65 million years after the flesh has gone, leaving only fossilised bones behind?

"I asked the curator that," says the marketing and communications department's Barbara Lyons. "Apparently it's only possible if it's a female that died while ovulating - which would change the chemical make-up of her bones. We can detect that change today."

Beyond the tyrannosaur, hanging in another huge, sunlit space, is a collection of casts and taxidermy of large animals, such as dolphins, elephants, rhinos, squid and megasloths, that have walked, crawled, swum, slithered or flown on Earth since the origin of animal life, 600 million years ago. Three large plasma screens, similarly suspended, lend life, motion and added interest to the Wildlife Panorama, with film footage of species that still survive.

"One of the most appealing aspects of the new galleries is their interactiveness," says Emma. "There are multiple ways now to engage with the collections. In every gallery you can look at objects and read about them, as before, but you can also explore them through interactive exhibits. We have 200 of these, for adults and children.

"Here in the Natural World, for instance, you can find out how the sex of alligators when they're born depends on temperature. You can reintroduce wolves to Scotland and see what happens. You can try pedalling a bike as fast as a cheetah can run."

Two new galleries, aimed at children and families, are almost entirely interactive, she says. Adventure Planet stimulates curiosity and respect for nature, and develops the skills needed to become wildlife explorers and science detectives. "They can dig up the skeleton of a dinosaur and try on clothes an explorer would wear in the jungle."

Imagine is a groundbreaking new gallery aimed at the very young, Emma explains, leading the way to a colourfully furnished space with low surfaces, seating and displays. "This gallery takes some of our objects as the starting point for playing, creating, telling stories and dressing up.

"It's for the tinies who normally can't do anything, or even see anything, in a museum," she says, opening little wooden panels at floor level to reveal an old spinning top and little Chinese figures. "Here are Aesop's fables on tiles which they can look at and touch, then play a game of racing the hare and the tortoise. Here's a collection of large teapots and china they can play with. Children love making tea."

Another innovation to make visits more engaging is the new team of Enablers, recruited for their people skills. "They will be around in galleries like this to talk to people, answer questions, tell the objects' stories," Emma says. "They will work with schools, families and at adult events. They are going to be busy. It means our learning programmes team has grown from five to 15."

Maybe the most important message about the redeveloped museum is that no one needs to plan their visit, Barbara says. "You can pop in any time and find interesting things to do and see - and an enabler to talk to.

"There will also be loads of interesting events, of course, such as the magic carpet ride, where you can sit down and get carried around the world - through storytelling, of course."

She laughs. "Maybe at the next redevelopment we will make it a real magic carpet ride."

Until that happens, visitors to the National Museum of Scotland will experience the world through storytelling, the power of the imagination and the impact of objects from other times, places and people.

The new Window on the World is the UK's largest museum installation, a vertical display of over 800 objects, rising on the south wall from the basement to the top floor.

Over 8,000 objects have been chosen for the new galleries at The National Museum of Scotland, and most are on display for the first time. Seeing and absorbing everything is a challenge - one that takes a lifetime for some people, Emma says. "We see the same faces again and again.

"There is one little boy called Arthur, who has been coming here with his mum since he was in a baby carrier. We've watched him grow. He's now about seven and comes with his wee sister. The museum is a wonderful, well-loved place for adults, families and children."


Storytelling is a particularly strong feature of the new Discoveries gallery, says David Forsyth, senior curator of Scottish social history and diaspora.

"We look at ideas, innovations and the contribution Scots have made to the world.

"These are not the usual suspects. We have lesser-known but fascinating characters, such as James Bruce of Kinnaird, who got bitten by the exploring bug and discovered the source of the Blue Nile at Lake Tana in Ethiopia. He is illustrated by this marvellous half-coconut, set in silver, which he used to toast George III."

The Discoveries gallery highlights objects taken from all the main areas of the museum, David says - art and design, natural world, science and technology, world cultures.

"It's an eclectic collection, from an Egyptian mummy to an Assyrian relief to a phial of penicillin.

"James Young Simpson is well known for his pioneering work with chloroform, but he also had a great interest in antiquities. He donated this beautiful limestone relief of Assyrians paying homage to their king, Ashurnasirpal II."

Redevelopment of the former Royal Museum has opened it up, both physically and intellectually, David says.

"We have taken advantage of modern developments in museology, interpretation, graphics. It is much more open and accessible now.

"The museum has always been a Victorian gem, a rich place for people to come, learn and enjoy. When it's returned to the people of Scotland and the wider world on 29 July, I can't wait to see the expressions on their faces when they first come through the doors."


Space for school visits has been expanded at the National Museum of Scotland, with one room replaced by three well-lit studios on the second floor, with easy access by lift or stairs.

"There's a cloakroom and a packed-lunch area and we've put in new toilets so kids don't have far to go," says learning manager Emma Webb.

"As you can see, there's loads of space for dance, drama or object- handling. We'll have interactive whiteboards and internet access. In one new session for secondary schools, the pupils will interview curators, do research in the galleries, then learn to script, voice and edit their own science podcast.

"Another workshop for primary schools looks at animal adaptations. So they come in here, find out why a leopard might change its spots and how an elephant avoids sunburn. They design their own specially adapted animal."

The objective in all this is to guide children's learning in ways that are different but complementary to schoolwork, she says.

"Through our galleries, objects and activities we'll give children experiences that are fun and memorable and enhance their classroom learning."


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