Architecture: Scotland the brave

The new Museum of Scotland was opened on Monday - St Andrew's Day. The story of a triumphant end to 25 years of political infighting, Westminster domination and internal divisions is told by Charles McKean
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SO MANY new museums and art galleries have opened in the last 20 years that you can buy comparative coffee-table books about them. They have indeed become the secular churches and cathedrals of the late 20th century. Few, however, have had their objects ecumenically and ceremonially blessed in church in front of the largest gathering of crafts, trades and professions for 200 years.

Last Sunday, the inauguration of the Museum of Scotland took place in the awesome and dignified sepulchre of St Giles in Edinburgh. Patently, the new museum, in Scots' eyes at least, was not just yet another museum. The Museum of Scotland, the 1991 winning design of one of the largest and most controversial of international competitions, may be the finest Scottish building of the 20th century.

The museum's director, Mark Jones, described the project as completing "unfinished business". Scotland began to accumulate its appropriate national cultural institutions during the Enlightenment but, until now, never had a purpose-built structure to contain the breadth of objects required to represent its history. Once the concept of the Museum of Scotland was coined in 1981, what began as a simple matter of a new title for the Scottish collections acquired weightier overtones. The idea swelled over the decade. Just two years later, the "presentation of distinctive or outstanding aspects of the nation's culture" had become a "sanctuary of national pride".

Almost inevitably a few years later, the ambition arose for the building to be a "symbol of national identity". By the time of the architectural competition in 1991 - long before Braveheart - Magnus Magnusson had defined its purpose as reflecting the nation's place in the wider world. No surprise, therefore, that there was pressure to open it on St Andrew's Day.

The National Museums of Scotland had been created from two, previously separate museums. The Royal Scottish Museum (RSM) in Chambers Street and the Museum of Antiquities in Queen Street had both been acknowledged to be short of space and requiring extensions, or a new building, first in 1929 and then in 1951. Expansive plans were gradually whittled away until both were forced to negotiate for shared use of a new site next to the RSM. Four schemes were developed and abandoned. The conflict could be symbolised by the RSM's desire for a planetarium and the Antiquities' desire for a medieval hall. Natural incompatibilities were exacerbated by the jockeying for space; the project was abandoned after 20 years.

A committee set up by the government recommended separate museums on separate sites but the government rejected that and merged the two museums, selected the current site but sold half of it. Lord Bute was appointed to chair the merger, and then the trustees of the new institution. For reasons of unity, the new building could only be an extension of the RSM, rather than have its own identity.

The museum that opened on Monday is no longer an extension. It has its own heraldic entrance through a prominent drum tower. All the non-Scottish displays originally required in the competition have been excised. The scale and materials (stone) are similar between the old and new museums, but the former is determinedly Venetian and the later equally determinedly abstracted from Scottish precedent.

Gordon Benson and Alan Forsyth won the competition to design the museum with its brilliant plan, its empathy with the site and its response to the idea of Scotland and its objects. "Architecture from the past touches the heart. The next step is how to continue it," they said.

Inspired by the strength of the collections, it had adorned its competition drawings with strategically located icons, and with references to historic Scots precedents, notably the curtain wall castles of the Gaeltachd. The plan of the building bears a close metaphorical resemblance to those of Duntrune, Dunstaffnage, Dunollie, Mingarry and Tioram. The curtain wall enfolds the site in glowing, iron-stained sheets of Clashach sandstone; the central courtyard - Hawthornden Court - is visually roofed by sky and scudding clouds, and the tower is the main stack of galleries at the back.

The architecture, inspired equally by Le Corbusier and Mackintosh, has an element entirely of its own - an almost "look, no hands" apparent weightlessness and a desire to eradicate technology save where it contributes to the museum's message. It conveys the resonance of Scottish architectural history without copying or compromising the late-20th-century design.

From the street there is no inkling of the richness within. White, top- lit volumes connect tight, low spaces with painted ceilings, cavernous light wells, sculptured doorways and lintels; round every corner there is either a spatial or an iconic surprise. Wherever you walk in this building, you are offered unexpected but scrupulously controlled glimpses of views of the outside.

To achieve a building of this quality represents an unusual act of patronage. The momentum came from Lord Bute, who demanded a building of "remark and excellence". Even more significant was his belief that the building "should animate what it contains". So the museum was to be site-specific and object-specific, not a museum of collections but one of narratives about Scotland.

Bute lay about the Secretaries of State who refused to fund the extension. Before his death in 1993, he set in motion the extraordinary achievement of raising almost pounds 18m from the private sector and the lottery to fund the fitting out. His team breasted the resignation of the Prince of Wales in 1991 and Lord Bute's successor, Robert Smith, had to snatch the project from imminent political cancellation only a few years later.

The building - which despite its opening on Monday is still not complete - is admired by Enric Miralles, the Catalan architect of the new Scottish parliament, whose site is half a mile away. He admires it for its quality, and the way that it seems to metamorphose according to the changing light and weather. In so doing, the Scottishness of this international building is manifest.

Charles McKean, professor of Scottish architectural history at the University of Dundee, is writing the official history of the museum