On Friday 9th of December the Centre for Visual Arts and Culture organized a field trip for the second cohort of Durham Leverhulme doctoral scholars to visit the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. Situated between Edinburgh Castle to the west and Arthur’s Seat to the east the museum operates a commanding position. Displaying extensive and varied collections including natural history, arts and fashion, design and technology, history and archaeology. It was therefore an exciting opportunity to see how materials, concepts and ideas from varied disciplines incorporating both the arts and sciences are visually presented in one venue.
The museum in its current form resulted from the joining of the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland (NMAS) with the pre-existing building, the Royal Scottish Museum (RSM), which was built in 1866. This rather adventurous nationalistic project began during the 1980s when debates over renaming collections snowballed into a decision to combine the two museums focusing on national identity. This decision was underpinned by the current resurgence in Scottish identity and nationalism. Consequently, in 1985 the two museums were incorporated as ‘National Museum of Scotland’ (NMS). To accommodate NMAS, a new building adjoined to the RSM needed to be created and after an architectural competition, it was clear that Scottish history and identity was at the forefront of the architectural ambitions for the new building. This was realised in Benson and Forsyth’s wining design which utilized local Clashach and Corsehill sandstone to create a façade that was reminiscent of castle architecture, with the circular tower at the north-west of the building mirroring Edinburgh Castle’s half-moon battery. This ambitious project is still ongoing but the new building has been open to the public since 1998.
Upon arrival at the museum the cohort was met by Stephen Allen (Head of Learning and Programmes) who provided an overview of the complex history of the museum and its continuing active role in local arts and culture. After, this fascinating insight into how NMS became Britain’s most visited tourist attraction outside of London, the cohort was able to explore the diverse galleries, starting with the Victorian atrium of the older building. This wonderful open space is utilized to introduce the visitor to different aspects of the museum’s collections with a variety of different artefacts on display from a sperm whale skull to a Buddhist statue.
From this point the cohort split up to investigate the different exhibits and styles of display used. From the art gallery style of display focused on ‘Design for Living’ to the extensive use of taxidermy of extant species alongside the fossil skeletons of extinct species in the ‘Animal World’ gallery.
One of the most captivating and busy areas was the science and ‘Explore’ gallery where the extensive use of interactives ensured that all age groups were actively engaged with the exhibits.
Whilst, the galleries focusing on Scottish history were situated chronologically, starting with early prehistory and history in the basement all the way up to modern day. The location of prehistory in the basement was underpinned by architectural aims to simulate a space similar to an archaeological excavation. This design decision conflates archaeology with prehistory and creates a space where it is difficult to install interactives. Consequently to aid interpretation of the artefacts, the space is laid out thematically and utilizes contemporary sculpture to emphasize these themes.
The most prominent sculptures are the twelve bronze statues created by Sir Eduardo Paolozzi which contain prehistoric jewellery and greet the visitor as they enter the gallery of ‘Early People’. These statues provide the artefacts they contain with human agency without providing a false impression of personhood that is usually created when reconstructions are used.
After the cohort had gained an impression of the museum they met up to critically discuss their opinions about the displays and how they are presented. During these discussions it was clear that in certain galleries there were some issues of representation where the narrative focuses on one particular group to the exclusion of other prominent perspectives. The varying themes encountered in the different galleries were also discussed and it was apparent that everyone had enjoyed their museum experience for a variety of different reasons. The National Museum of Scotland, although highly ambitious, has succeeded in creating a space that can be enjoyed by a diverse range of audiences.
Felicity McDowall December 2016