The old lady of Chambers Street is grand once more

After a £47m refurbishment that took three years, the new National Museum of Scotland shows how to turn a tired Victorian building into a modern and revitalised collection
Click to follow
The Independent Online

By three o'clock on Friday, 20,000 visitors had explored the newly opened National Museum of Scotland within its first day. There was excitement, wonder and, above all, delight that a much-loved Edinburgh institution had started a new life after being closed for three years during a £47.4m refurbishment.

The old lady of Chambers Street is home to an astonishing one million objects, both man made and natural, representing the three strands of the sciences, the humanities and world cultures. It is a collection as kaleidoscopic as the Festival, for which it has opened in time to host a performance in the Grand Gallery, a troupe of dancers from Rajasthan.

It seems an appropriately esoteric choice for a museum that has 16 galleries and 8,000 exhibits ranging from Dolly the sheep to Chin Chin the panda. When it first opened in 1861, Prince Albert laid a foundation stone that read: "Showing Scotland to the world, and the world to Scotland." As a press release puts it, this was "the aftermath of the Scottish enlightenment". Well, we know what they mean. It was certainly a time when Scots were pioneers in science, technology, engineering and medicine.

Thousands of objects were amassed by collectors and travellers, including Alexander Fleming's Nobel prize and John Logie Baird's first colour television. It was also the heyday of Victorian moral fervour, when museums were seen as a way to lure working men out of the pub and into lives of rigour and self-improvement.

There are so many museums in Edinburgh that, to many, the National Museum is known as "the one with the fish". This is because of the two large ponds in the Grand Gallery, the centrepiece of a building considered to be one of the finest the Victorians ever built. The Grand Gallery soars up four storeys to a glass roof, with rows of thin iron columns creating a birdcage effect. The architect, Francis Fowke, drew his inspiration from London's Crystal Palace, and also designed the Royal Albert Hall and Victoria and Albert Museum.

But by the late 20th century, the museum was looking tired. This was made all the more obvious in 1998, when a new Museum of Scotland opened next door. With its rooftop restaurant and Modernist curves, it captured the zeitgeist of Cool Britannia, leaving the National Museum looking like a museum exhibit itself.

"Inappropriate things had happened," says director Gordon Rintoul. "Rooms were painted funny colours and people often got lost. There was a clear need to modernise and revitalise." A survey of visitors revealed only 10 per cent ventured beyond the entrance hall. Most just looked at the fish. Almost none made it to the top floor.

Architect Gareth Hoskins and New York-based designer Ralph Appelbaum have concentrated on making the museum lighter and more accessible. A significant change has been to create a new entrance at street level. The thinking is that the steep flight of steps was an obstacle to visitors coming in off the street.

Another major alteration is that the ground floor, previously used for storage, has been emptied and opened up. The size of six tennis courts, this used to be a warren of archive rooms. Curators rediscovered items such as a 1661 silk doublet and hose, and a wooden Maori canoe of the 1820s. These are now on display, and this wonderful space, with its vaulted sandstone ceiling, houses the shop, café and information desk, all previously in the Grand Gallery.

Elsewhere, mustard carpets have been replaced with polished wood and sandstone, and blue metalwork has been repainted white. A wall has been opened up so that you can walk straight into the Museum of Scotland next door. Arches between galleries that were blocked up have now been reopened so that visitors can wander from nature to pottery to transport, like walking through an encyclopaedia.

The variety of the collection is highlighted by The Window on the World, an arrangement of 50 objects mounted together on a wall rising four storeys in the Grand Gallery. A motorbike sits next to a 14th-century knight's helmet, which is next to a girder salvaged from the Tay Bridge. The idea is to create a snapshot of the collection, while inspiring a sense of wonder at man's ingenuity.

You might also wonder at the management of the revamp, which came in on time and on budget. In fact, its fundraising was so effective it has been left with a million pounds to spare.

And the fish? Controversially, the ponds have been removed. This frees up space in the Grand Gallery which can now be used for corporate functions – a major source of future income – and for public performances, such as the Rajasthani dancers. And as Mr Rintoul says, the ponds were added only in the 1970s. "People liked them because they were the only thing here that moved."

Now there are 150 interactive exhibits. And even the old guard approves: senior curator David Forsyth has been with the museum for 15 years. "The grande dame of Chambers Street was in need of a makeover," he says. "I think Francis Fowke would be pleased with what we've done." Even if the museum is no longer the one with the fish.

National treasures...

National Gallery of Scotland

Home to masterpieces by continental artists including Botticelli and Cézanne, it also boasts Scotland's most famous painting, Henry Raeburn's The Skating Minister. The Neoclassical building, with its many stone columns and pediments, stands on The Mound, sandwiched between the two halves of Princes Street Gardens.

The Mound, Edinburgh EH2 2EL. 0131-624 6200

Palace of Holyroodhouse

The Queen's official residence in Scotland dominates the east end of the Royal Mile, with Arthur's Seat towering behind. A Baroque masterpiece, it was home to Mary Queen of Scots and has been the scene of many dramatic events including the gruesome murder of Mary's secretary Rizzio by her husband, Lord Darnley. Zara Phillips's wedding reception was held there yesterday.

Royal Mile, Edinburgh EH8 8DX. 0131-556 5100

Edinburgh Castle

Jutting from a rocky volcanic outcrop, the 3,000-year-old stronghold dominates the city skyline. It hasn't been laid siege to since 1745, when Bonnie Prince Charlie's Jocobite forces failed to wrest it from King George II. Technically it belongs to the Ministry of Defence, and houses the National War Museum and two regiments (the Royal Scots and the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards). Every summer, it hosts the Military Tattoo.

Castlehill, Edinburgh EH1 2NG. 0131-225 9846

Museum of Edinburgh

Housed in a series of higgledy-piggledy houses on the Royal Mile, this collection traces the history of the city from James Craig's plans for the New Town, to the collar and bowl of Greyfriars Bobby, the terrier who remained loyal to his master's grave for years after his death.

142 Canongate, Royal Mile, Edinburgh EH8 8DD. 0131-529 4143