Travel: Tartan but spartan

The modern, cheese-wedge buildings of Scotland's new national museum contrast sharply with historic Edinburgh. But will its contents be as striking?
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
You cannot miss it. At first it was only the outside of the new Museum of Scotland that was unmissable, stuck on the corner of Chambers Street in Edinburgh with its huge, yellow sandstone tower and cheese-wedge buildings, topped by a hulk of a hanging garden. Last winter the building was greeted with a mix of modernist architectural applause ("masterpiece", "stunning"), cautious approval ("striking") and outright hostility. This winter, now that the inside is almost ready for Monday's Royal opening, the exhibitions themselves look set for a similar fate.

Forget the does-it-tell-a-nationalist-story, is-it-chronological debate. The answers are definitely yes; it is a many splendoured, dreamcoat of stories, each hung about a precious historic object, and there is an outline time-scale that helps visitors get their bearings but does not strait- jacket the displays. And no, it does not let its lovely national treasures - such as Mary Queen of Scots' jewels and the Holyrood chapel silver - get swamped in jingoism or confrontation between oppressive rulers and emerging national pride.

The real issue here, assuming that the collections are properly preserved, is whether people will find the museum interesting enough to come back. Dr David Clarke, the head of exhibitions, insists that a visit should be a pleasurable, visual experience, and that it is designed not for specialists but for those with little prior knowledge. Despite this liberalism, Clarke is a convincing purist when it comes to what is on show. Mock-ups and recreations of the past that rely heavily on imagination are out. For Clarke, they are tantamount to "giving a complete statement of certainty about what the past was like" which, he explains, "would be wrong. The public deserves the truth."

The result is that, at this museum, what you see is what the experts know, and the story of Scotland on show here is based entirely on the objects in Scotland's national collections. But the question for today's visitor is whether the objects' stories can be told vividly enough merely with explanation panels, captions and multi-media interpretation and using barely 30 computers in total around the museum?

Less than three days before the opening, it is still difficult to be sure. The computers are not yet online. The rooftop restaurant is not open. Half the display panels are waiting to be mounted, and the Discovery Centre is not set up. Some impressions are clear, though, and it is not just the panoramic views of Edinburgh Castle that take your breath away.

Step inside the round tower reception area and what hits you first is the sequence of spaces. Galleries open one into another, different sizes, different shapes, all with pale walls that are wood-panelled to look like large blocks of stone and inset with deep display cases. Shafts of daylight stream through arrow-slit windows and cascade down from the roof lights. There is room to ponder and enjoy every item on display.

Start in Beginnings - better known as geology - and you can see how Scotland was formed 3 billion years ago, and how its ice-age woodlands looked before you move on to the next "epoch", Early People. At the arrival of the first settlers, you find prehistoric Scotland prefaced by groups of figures sculpted by Eduardo Paolozzi.

Up a level to The Kingdom of the Scots, 1100 to 1707AD, when Scotland was a nation in its own right, and you come to some of the most precious medieval and Renaissance relics - exquisite miniature portraits, church silver, Bonnie Prince Charlie's sword and "targe" (shield) and the treasured 8th-century Monymusk reliquary. Beneath the tiny, portable shrine and beside its solemn pedigree is a caption written by one of the museum's junior advisory group: "I can hardly believe that it held a bone of St Columba."

Another young writer's verdict sits beside the Ellesmere locomotive, Scotland's oldest surviving steam loco. Standing near the huge Newcomen engine built into the centre of the museum's huge central galleries, it is dedicated to the role Scots people played in commerce, industry and science in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Thanks to the 12-member Junior Board, set up three years ago with 9- to 12-year-olds drawn from all over Scotland, the museum also has a Discovery Centre. What the group really really wanted was "dark rides", Dr Clarke admits. They lost that one, but won a dedicated children's hands-on centre in what should have been the temporary exhibition gallery.

As a result the Twentieth Century gallery, on the top floor, is the only temporary exhibition. Due to change after three years, it is a hotchpotch of objects chosen by Scots people and personalities as items that have had most impact on life in Scotland this century. Tony Blair's suggestion was an electric guitar. Others went for televisions, Thermos flasks and favourite toys.

Although the idea is fun, somehow it feels like a lightweight solution that has floated up to the top of the building, not a proper attempt to address current issues. It may seem less frothy when the computerised bank of personal reasons and recollections goes live next week. In fact, the museum will not be fully up-and-running, with free guided tours, children's workshops, trails and activities, until January, which is probably the time to judge it.

Meanwhile, though, they could do with a bit more interactive interpretation. Dr Clarke looks right when he suggests that "objects open windows on the past more vividly than anything else". As for the modernist architecture: it works brilliantly from the inside and the top but whether it is in the right location is another matter.

The New Museum of Scotland, Chambers Street, Edinburgh (0131-247 4219), will open daily from December 1 from Monday to Saturday between 10am and 5pm (Sundays from 12noon to 5pm and on Tuesdays until 8pm). Admission is pounds 3 (pounds 5 for a season ticket) for adults, pounds 1.50 (pounds 2.50 for a season ticket) for students, senior citizens and the unemployed, and pounds 9 for a family season ticket. Tickets are also valid for the Royal Museum next door, which houses Scotland's international collections.