National Museum of Scotland reopens after three-year redevelopment

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Friday, July 29, 2011

Grant Stott, and Bryony Hare opening the museum.
Image: Brian McNeil.

Today sees the reopening of the National Museum of Scotland following a three-year renovation costing £47.4 million (US$ 77.3 million). Edinburgh's Chambers Street was closed to traffic for the morning, with the 10am reopening by eleven-year-old Bryony Hare, who took her first steps in the museum, and won a competition organised by the local Evening News paper to be a VIP guest at the event. Prior to the opening, Wikinews toured the renovated museum, viewing the new galleries, and some of the 8,000 objects inside.

The Mugenkyo Taiko drummers performing on the museum steps
Street theater for the opening
Animatronic Tyrannosaurus Rex entertaining the crowd
The Mugenkyo Taiko drummers performing on the museum steps
Street theater for the opening
Street theater for the opening
Street theater for the opening
Animatronic Tyrannosaurus Rex entertaining the crowd
Street theater for the opening
The Mugenkyo Taiko drummers performing on the museum steps
Street theater for the opening
Street theater for the opening

Dressed in Victorian attire, Scottish broadcaster Grant Stott acted as master of ceremonies over festivities starting shortly after 9am. The packed street cheered an animatronic Tyrannosaurus Rex created by Millenium FX; onlookers were entertained with a twenty-minute performance by the Mugenkyo Taiko Drummers on the steps of the museum; then, following Bryony Hare knocking three times on the original doors to ask that the museum be opened, the ceremony was heralded with a specially composed fanfare – played on a replica of the museum's 2,000-year-old carnyx Celtic war-horn. During the fanfare, two abseilers unfurled white pennons down either side of the original entrance.

The completion of the opening to the public was marked with Chinese firecrackers, and fireworks, being set off on the museum roof. As the public crowded into the museum, the Mugenkyo Taiko Drummers resumed their performance; a street theatre group mingled with the large crowd, and the animatronic Tyrannosaurus Rex entertained the thinning crowd of onlookers in the centre of the street.

Press preview

A 'God of the Sea' carving from the Cook Islands, on display in the World Cultures Galleries.
Image: Brian McNeil.
The newly-opened, vaulted-ceilinged Entrance Hall.
Image: Brian McNeil.

On Wednesday, the museum welcomed the world's press for an in depth preview of the new visitor experience. Wikinews was represented by Brian McNeil, who is also Wikimedia UK's interim liaison with Museum Galleries Scotland.

The new pavement-level Entrance Hall saw journalists mingle with curators. The director, Gordon Rintoul, introduced presentations by Gareth Hoskins and Ralph Applebaum, respective heads of the Architects and Building Design Team; and, the designers responsible for the rejuvenation of the museum.

Describing himself as a "local lad", Hoskins reminisced about his grandfather regularly bringing him to the museum, and pushing all the buttons on the numerous interactive exhibits throughout the museum. Describing the nearly 150-year-old museum as having become "a little tired", and a place "only visited on a rainy day", he commented that many international visitors to Edinburgh did not realise that the building was a public space; explaining the focus was to improve access to the museum – hence the opening of street-level access – and, to "transform the complex", focus on "opening up the building", and "creating a number of new spaces [...] that would improve facilities and really make this an experience for 21st century museum visitors".

Hoskins explained that a "rabbit warren" of storage spaces were cleared out to provide street-level access to the museum; the floor in this "crypt-like" space being lowered by 1.5 metres to achieve this goal. Then Hoskins handed over to Applebaum, who expressed his delight to be present at the reopening.

Applebaum commented that one of his first encounters with the museum was seeing "struggling young mothers with two kids in strollers making their way up the steps", expressing his pleasure at this being made a thing of the past. Applebaum explained that the Victorian age saw the opening of museums for public access, with the National Museum's earlier incarnation being the "College Museum" – a "first window into this museum's collection".

The bridge joining the Old College to the museum.
Image: Brian McNeil.
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Have you any photos of the museum, or its exhibits?

The museum itself is physically connected to the University of Edinburgh's old college via a bridge which allowed students to move between the two buildings.

Applebaum explained that the museum will, now redeveloped, be used as a social space, with gatherings held in the Grand Gallery, "turning the museum into a social convening space mixed with knowledge". Continuing, he praised the collections, saying they are "cultural assets [... Scotland is] turning those into real cultural capital", and the museum is, and museums in general are, providing a sense of "social pride".

The guided tour

View of the Grand Gallery from the south-east corner.
Image: Brian McNeil.

McNeil joined the yellow group on a guided tour round the museum with one of the staff. Climbing the stairs at the rear of the Entrance Hall, the foot of the Window on the World exhibit, the group gained a first chance to see the restored Grand Gallery. This space is flooded with light from the glass ceiling three floors above, supported by 40 cast-iron columns. As may disappoint some visitors, the fish ponds have been removed; these were not an original feature, but originally installed in the 1960s – supposedly to humidify the museum; and failing in this regard. But, several curators joked that they attracted attention as "the only thing that moved" in the museum.

The Millennium Clock, centred in the Discoveries Gallery.
Image: Brian McNeil.

The museum's original architect was Captain Francis Fowke, also responsible for the design of London's Royal Albert Hall; his design for the then-Industrial Museum apparently inspired by Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace.

Newly-installed escalator in the Discoveries Gallery.
Image: Brian McNeil.

The group moved from the Grand Gallery into the Discoveries Gallery to the south side of the museum. The old red staircase is gone, and the Millennium Clock stands to the right of a newly-installed escalator, giving easier access to the upper galleries than the original staircases at each end of the Grand Gallery. Two glass elevators have also been installed, flanking the opening into the Discoveries Gallery and, providing disabled access from top-to-bottom of the museum.

History of the Museum

The National Museum of Scotland's origins can be traced back to 1780 when the 11th Earl of Buchan, David Stuart Erskine, formed the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland; the Society being tasked with the collection and preservation of archaeological artefacts for Scotland. In 1858, control of this was passed to the government of the day and the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland came into being. Items in the collection at that time were housed at various locations around the city.

On Wednesday, October 28, 1861, during a royal visit to Edinburgh by Queen Victoria, Prince-Consort Albert laid the foundation-stone for what was then intended to be the Industrial Museum. Nearly five years later, it was the second son of Victoria and Albert, Prince Alfred, the then-Duke of Edinburgh, who opened the building which was then known as the Scottish Museum of Science and Art. A full-page feature, published in the following Monday's issue of The Scotsman covered the history leading up to the opening of the museum, those who had championed its establishment, the building of the collection which it was to house, and Edinburgh University's donation of their Natural History collection to augment the exhibits put on public display.

The renovation

A GE 950. The oldest colour television in the world, build to a design by pioneer John Logie Baird.
Image: Brian McNeil.
The Grand Gallery on opening day
Selection of views of the Grand Gallery
Image: Brian McNeil.
The Grand Gallery on opening day
Selection of views of the Grand Gallery
Image: Brian McNeil.
The Grand Gallery on opening day
Selection of views of the Grand Gallery
Image: Brian McNeil.

Closed for a little over three years, today's reopening of the museum is seen as the "centrepiece" of National Museums Scotland's fifteen-year plan to dramatically improve accessibility and better present their collections. Sir Andrew Grossard, chair of the Board of Trustees, said: "The reopening of the National Museum of Scotland, on time and within budget is a tremendous achievement [...] Our collections tell great stories about the world, how Scots saw that world, and the disproportionate impact they had upon it. The intellectual and collecting impact of the Scottish diaspora has been profound. It is an inspiring story which has captured the imagination of our many supporters who have helped us achieve our aspirations and to whom we are profoundly grateful."

The extensive work, carried out with a view to expand publicly accessible space and display more of the museums collections, carried a £47.4 million pricetag. This was jointly funded with £16 million from the Scottish Government, and £17.8 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Further funds towards the work came from private sources and totalled £13.6 million. Subsequent development, as part of the longer-term £70 million "Masterplan", is expected to be completed by 2020 and see an additional eleven galleries opened.

The funding by the Scottish Government can be seen as a 'canny' investment; a report commissioned by National Museums Scotland, and produced by consultancy firm Biggar Economics, suggest the work carried out could be worth £58.1 million per year, compared with an estimated value to the economy of £48.8 prior to the 2008 closure. Visitor figures are expected to rise by over 20%; use of function facilities are predicted to increase, alongside other increases in local hospitality-sector spending.

Captain Cook's clock, a Shelton regulator, taken on his first voyage to the Pacific to observe the transit of Venus in Tahiti.
Image: Brian McNeil.

Proudly commenting on the Scottish Government's involvement Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs, described the reopening as, "one of the nation’s cultural highlights of 2011" and says the rejuvenated museum is, "[a] must-see attraction for local and international visitors alike". Continuing to extol the museum's virtues, Hyslop states that it "promotes the best of Scotland and our contributions to the world."

So-far, the work carried out is estimated to have increased the public space within the museum complex by 50%. Street-level storage rooms, never before seen by the public, have been transformed into new exhibit space, and pavement-level access to the buildings provided which include a new set of visitor facilities. Architectural firm Gareth Hoskins have retained the original Grand Gallery – now the first floor of the museum – described as a "birdcage" structure and originally inspired by The Crystal Palace built in Hyde Park, London for the 1851 Great Exhibition.

The centrepiece in the Grand Gallery is the "Window on the World" exhibit, which stands around 20 metres tall and is currently one of the largest installations in any UK museum. This showcases numerous items from the museum's collections, rising through four storeys in the centre of the museum. Alexander Hayward, the museums Keeper of Science and Technology, challenged attending journalists to imagine installing "teapots at thirty feet".

Galleries and exhibits

The redeveloped museum includes the opening of sixteen brand new galleries. Housed within, are over 8,000 objects, only 20% of which have been previously seen.

The newly-opened, vaulted-ceilinged, ground floor.
The first floor, with the Grand Gallery.
Second floor, including the Ancient Egypt gallery.
Top floor, including the Looking East gallery.
A collection of local signs in the Window on the World; not readily accessible, the red tramways sign may be a sore point with some Edinburgh residents.
Image: Brian McNeil.

The Window on the World rises through the four floors of the museum and contains over 800 objects. This includes a gyrocopter from the 1930s, the world's largest scrimshaw – made from the jaws of a sperm whale which the University of Edinburgh requested for their collection, a number of Buddha figures, spearheads, antique tools, an old gramophone and record, a selection of old local signage, and a girder from the doomed Tay Bridge.

The World Cultures Galleries

The arrangement of galleries around the Grand Gallery's "birdcage" structure is organised into themes across multiple floors. The World Cultures Galleries allow visitors to explore the culture of the entire planet; Living Lands explains the ways in which our natural environment influences the way we live our lives, and the beliefs that grow out of the places we live - from the Arctic cold of North America to Australia's deserts.

A display housing musical instruments from around the world, on show in the Performance & Lives gallery.
Image: Brian McNeil.

The adjacent Patterns of Life gallery shows objects ranging from the everyday, to the unusual from all over the world. The functions different objects serve at different periods in peoples' lives are explored, and complement the contents of the Living Lands gallery.

Performance & Lives houses musical instruments from around the world, alongside masks and costumes; both rooted in long-established traditions and rituals, this displayed alongside contemporary items showing the interpretation of tradition by contemporary artists and instrument-creators.

An interactive tonal matrix, constructed by Portugese-Angolan artist Victor Garna.
Image: Brian McNeil.

The museum proudly bills the Facing the Sea gallery as the only one in the UK which is specifically based on the cultures of the South Pacific. It explores the rich diversity of the communities in the region, how the sea shapes the islanders' lives – describing how their lives are shaped as much by the sea as the land.

Both the Facing the Sea and Performance & Lives galleries are on the second floor, next to the new exhibition shop and foyer which leads to one of the new exhibition galleries, expected to house the visiting Amazing Mummies exhibit in February, coming from Leiden in the Netherlands.

The Inspired by Nature, Artistic Legacies, and Traditions in Sculpture galleries take up most of the east side of the upper floor of the museum. The latter of these shows the sculptors from diverse cultures have, through history, explored the possibilities in expressing oneself using metal, wood, or stone. The Inspired by Nature gallery shows how many artists, including contemporary ones, draw their influence from the world around us – often commenting on our own human impact on that natural world.

Contrastingly, the Artistic Legacies gallery compares more traditional art and the work of modern artists. The displayed exhibits attempt to show how people, in creating specific art objects, attempt to illustrate the human spirit, the cultures they are familiar with, and the imaginative input of the objects' creators.

The Natural World Galleries

A range of sea creatures are suspended in the open space, with giant screens showing them in their natural habitat.
Image: Brian McNeil.

The easternmost side of the museum, adjacent to Edinburgh University's Old College, will bring back memories for many regular visitors to the museum; but, with an extensive array of new items. The museum's dedicated taxidermy staff have produced a wide variety of fresh examples from the natural world.

The head of the cast life-size T-Rex
Life-size replica of T-Rex
A pair of peacocks fighting
A giraffe shown using his long tongue to forage
The elephant that wouldn't leave; this exhibit stayed in a corner through the renovations

At ground level, the Animal World and Wildlife Panorama's most imposing exhibit is probably the lifesize reproduction of a Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton. This rubs shoulders with other examples from around the world, including one of a pair of elephants. The on-display elephant could not be removed whilst renovation work was underway, and lurked in a corner of the gallery as work went on around it.

Above, in the Animal Senses gallery, are examples of how we experience the world through our senses, and contrasting examples of wildly differing senses, or extremes of such, present in the natural world. This gallery also has giant screens, suspended in the free space, which show footage ranging from the most tranquil and peaceful life in the sea to the tooth-and-claw bloody savagery of nature.

The Survival gallery gives visitors a look into the ever-ongoing nature of evolution; the causes of some species dying out while others thrive, and the ability of any species to adapt as a method of avoiding extinction.

A giant centrepiece in the Restless Earth gallery.
Image: Brian McNeil.

Earth in Space puts our place in the universe in perspective. Housing Europe's oldest surviving Astrolabe, dating from the eleventh century, this gallery gives an opportunity to see the technology invented to allow us to look into the big questions about what lies beyond Earth, and probe the origins of the universe and life.

In contrast, the Restless Earth gallery shows examples of the rocks and minerals formed through geological processes here on earth. The continual processes of the planet are explored alongside their impact on human life. An impressive collection of geological specimens are complemented with educational multimedia presentations.

The more familiar, the "Refreshed Galleries"

Beyond working on new galleries, and the main redevelopment, the transformation team have revamped galleries that will be familiar to regular past visitors to the museum.

Buddha figures sit alongside a gyrocopter in the Window on the World.
Image: Brian McNeil.

Formerly known as the Ivy Wu Gallery of East Asian Art, the Looking East gallery showcases National Museums Scotland's extensive collection of Korean, Chinese, and Japanese material. The gallery's creation was originally sponsored by Sir Gordon Wu, and named after his wife Ivy. It contains items from the last dynasty, the Manchu, and examples of traditional ceramic work. Japan is represented through artefacts from ordinary people's lives, expositions on the role of the Samurai, and early trade with the West. Korean objects also show the country's ceramic work, clothing, and traditional accessories used, and worn, by the indigenous people.

The Ancient Egypt gallery has always been a favourite of visitors to the museum. A great many of the exhibits in this space were returned to Scotland from late 19th century excavations; and, are arranged to take visitors through the rituals, and objects associated with, life, death, and the afterlife, as viewed from an Egyptian perspective.

A display of Egyptian shabtis, statues thought to act as servants to the dead in the afterlife.
Image: Brian McNeil.

The Art and Industry and European Styles galleries, respectively, show how designs are arrived at and turned into manufactured objects, and the evolution of European style – financed and sponsored by a wide range of artists and patrons. A large number of the objects on display, often purchased or commissioned, by Scots, are now on display for the first time ever.

Shaping our World encourages visitors to take a fresh look at technological objects developed over the last 200 years, many of which are so integrated into our lives that they are taken for granted. Radio, transportation, and modern medicines are covered, with a retrospective on the people who developed many of the items we rely on daily.

The Scottish Galleries

What was known as the Museum of Scotland, a modern addition to the classical Victorian-era museum, is now known as the Scottish Galleries following the renovation of the main building.

The modern extension, housing the Scottish Galleries.
Image: Maccoinnich.

This dedicated newer wing to the now-integrated National Museum of Scotland covers the history of Scotland from a time before there were people living in the country. The geological timescale is covered in the Beginnings gallery, showing continents arranging themselves into what people today see as familiar outlines on modern-day maps.

A replica Carnyx war horn being played at the museum opening.
Image: Brian McNeil.

Just next door, the history of the earliest occupants of Scotland are on display; hunters and gatherers from around 4,000 B.C give way to farmers in the Early People exhibits.

The Kingdom of the Scots follows Scotland becoming a recognisable nation, and a kingdom ruled over by the Stewart dynasty. Moving closer to modern-times, the Scotland Transformed gallery looks at the country's history post-union in 1707.

Industry and Empire showcases Scotland's significant place in the world as a source of heavy engineering work in the form of rail engineering and shipbuilding – key components in the building of the British Empire. Naturally, whisky was another globally-recognised export introduced to the world during empire-building.

Lastly, Scotland: A Changing Nation collects less-tangible items, including personal accounts, from the country's journey through the 20th century; the social history of Scots, and progress towards being a multicultural nation, is explored through heavy use of multimedia exhibits.

Sources

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