Notebook: Scots jingoism preserved in a glass case

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The Independent Online
IN EIGHT days' time, the Queen will open a new museum.

Now there is a dull sentence and a dull beginning. Almost every word in it might cause a yawn; the subject, verb and object, even the phrase which tells us when this somniferous news item will happen (nothing urgent like "tomorrow" or "next week"). But each of them has a significance which turns the whole into an interesting and even controversial event.

The museum is the Museum of Scotland and the date, 30 November, is St Andrew's Day. Had the Queen opened this same museum 30 or 40 years ago, then again the reaction might have been: so what? But that was long before either Scotland or museums drew attention to themselves as vital and contestable places. Before they got pushy, in other words.

Now, with a Scottish Parliament in the wings and a lot of talk of independence, along comes an expensive new building to house, burnish and display the relics and emblems of Scottish history. The conjunction of resurgent national politics and national culture is a coincidence in this case (the museum has been on the stocks since 1981), but never before, at least in Britain, has a collection of old arrowheads, ship models and teapots been scrutinised so fiercely for their contemporary political intent.

The union, devolution, separatism: to which case (if any) will these contents and the story they tell lend their support?

Last week, at the invitation of the museum, I went to Chambers Street in Edinburgh to have a look. I used to go there frequently as a child. The Edinburgh dental hospital was there and my teeth needed a long programme of seeing to; after an hour or so with my mouth full of wire and plaster, my mother would take me as a reward to the Royal Scottish Museum across the street.

This was a museum of the old sort, a handsome Victorian building up a grand flight of steps, filled with objects arranged by category. The provenance, the nationality, of the object rarely came into it. Model locomotives were in one room, birds' eggs in another, porcelain in a third. The primary purpose of museums these days is said to be educational. What did this museum teach me? Perhaps only that there were many strange and beautiful things in the world. I remember a tall totem pole, a whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling, and the fun of pressing a button and watching a model of a coal-mine get to work.

The new museum is next door and everything about is much more purposeful and self-consciously Scottish. The old building looks like a Venetian palazzo; the new one like a Scottish fortress, with an imposing keep and slit windows, faced in golden Morayshire sandstone. Prince Charles resigned as president of the new museum's patrons soon after he saw the design (by Gordon Benson and Alan Forsyth), but more recent judgements have been flattering.

According to the Royal Fine Art Commission for Scotland, it is the best piece of architecture in Scotland for 50 years. "Striking" is the cautious word I would use, although the sandstone softens the appearance of embattlement and, inside, cleverly placed windows give good effects of light. The building is no disgrace to a city of fine architecture. It has cost pounds 50m to build and pounds 14m to fit out, with half from government funds.

Unlike the old museum, littered like a magpie's nest, it is there to tell a story. The story, working floor by floor, goes like this. In the basement: Scotland in Pre-History - fossils, flints, early craftsmanship. On the ground floor: the Kingdom of the Scots - Scotland as nation between 1100 and 1707. On the first floor: Industry and Empire - Scotland between the Act of Union and 1914. On the second floor: Scotland in the 20th Century. What could be more harmless than this chronology? But as I was guided around last week I began to see, through the noise of hammering, two kinds of tension taking shape.

The first must be common to many new museums. If they intend to explain rather than simply display the past, then a narrative is necessary. People like stories, and they help us understand the relationship between epochs and ideas. But museums exist to display objects. Sometimes important ideas lack objects to exemplify them. How, for example, do you display the philosophical movement known as the Scottish Enlightenment? Or, as Mark Jones, the museum's director, put it: "If medieval Christian faith was important, what was it like? An object like a reliquary can only hint at the experience."

Mr Jones, an Englishman who came to Edinburgh from the British Museum, believes that museums need to be "object-led", but also that there has to be more to them than a public reaction "Gee, that's a nice-looking object". There also needs to be interpretation. This was not, he said, so much a problem with pre-history, where the evidence is restricted to "material culture" (arrowheads, pot-shards) which gave glimpses of how people lived. Real problems arose the closer one got to the present, when the issues of class and nationhood arose.

As he pointed out, "national" museums - that is, museums dedicated to identifying and communicating a national identity - tend to occur in countries which became nation states in the past 200 years: Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia. Long-established countries such as England, France and Spain did not have them and the old Royal Scottish Museum, with its collections culled from across the world, was Scottish mainly by location. "In that sense," Mr Jones said, "the new museum is moving us from one category into another."

And with that move comes the second tension, in the form of the question that increasing numbers of new museums like to try to answer: Who are we? A simple enough question, but with many answers and supplementaries: Is there a unitary "we"? Is there a "them"? Who is deciding the answers for us?

In a country which not so long ago was thought of as a region of the United Kingdom, this is troublesome terrain. Mr Jones and his curators are acutely aware of the arguments and seem to have negotiated them successfully, most of the time; my impression was of Scottish history as a complicated rather than proud and simple affair. The showpiece of Industry and Empire, for example, is a pit-pumping engine reassembled, complete with stone engine-house, from a long-abandoned colliery in Lanarkshire. George Dalgleish, the curator, was careful to point that, although the engine was built in Scotland, the design was by an Englishman, Newcomen; whereas another engine on display in the old museum next door was designed by Watt, a Scot, but built at the Birmingham factory of Boulton, an Englishman.

It sounds trivial and to anyone with an interest in engineering rather than nationalism, it is trivial. But it also demonstrates how far the idea of Britain has been eroded, how objects can suggest different things in different contexts to different people, and how wise and judicious captions need to be.

As we climbed higher, up into an area called Scotland and the World, I began to pay more attention to the captions, which are the real interpretative influence in a museum. Mr Dalgleish told me of the care that had gone into their writing. Focus-groups had been consulted; none could be more than 300 words; they must be clear enough to be understood by a literate 10-year-old.

So what did the captions say about the British Empire, in which Scotland played such an important role?

About Africa, I read:

The Scottish experience of Africa in the 19th century centred on missionaries and explorers.

About India, I read:

Building on kinship and a strong sense of identity, Scots did well out of service to India... exports to India included the necessary finance and expertise to develop the Indian economy.

Similarly innocent thoughts and half-truths are published in the museum's brochure. (It was Scots engineers who harnessed the great natural resources of the colonies. Scots soldiers helped to hold a far-flung Empire together.) You would not need to be a fierce anti-imperialist to detect the distasteful revisionism of words written in 1998, which could have come from 1908. "Kinship and a strong sense of identity" (nepotism); "explorers" (is there a good jute crop?); "holding a far-flung empire together" (binding the natives to the mouths of artillery pieces, firing the artillery pieces).

The truth about the empire lies somewhere between these extremes, but it is not a truth available in the Museum of Scotland, with its implication that the country often referred to tweely in Edinburgh as "our larger neighbour in the South" really ran the show and that Scotland was only obeying orders.

This cannot be a review of the museum, which was still half-empty when I saw it. But I would guess that it starts off very well and ends up rather poorly - certainly contentiously. Particularly in the early period, there are some wonderful displays. Later it risks the charge of slippery sentimentalism. There are fine views from the roof garden and a restaurant. It will be a deserved success in a boom era for museums.

I asked Mr Jones if there could be a Museum of England. He smiled and said he thought so, but I am not so sure it would be either possible or desirable. Certainly, if it imitated the Edinburgh museum's treatment of empire, which is where so many inhabitants of England (and quite a few of Scotland) come from, there would be academic lynch-mobs at the gates.