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Issue 40 - Exhibition for a changing nation

Scotland Magazine Issue 40
August 2008


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Exhibition for a changing nation

Charles Douglas looks in on the museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

It is now 10 years since the Museum of Scotland, the core of the National Museums of Scotland, first opened its doors.

Built in 1988 to complement its next door neighbour, the Royal Museum of Scotland which is currently closed for a major refurbishment, the Museum of Scotland on its corner site of the Old Town of Edinburgh, is of immense significance for anyone in search of that emotive and sometimes contradictory maxim, a Scottish identity. Not only does the building feature Scotland’s prehistory, and the passage of time to the present day, but it intelligently and without bias analyses the soul of the Nation.

Displayed on nine floors, generations of collecting have amassed items ranging from Viking brooches and the clarsach of Mary Queen of Scots to Dolly the Sheep, the first ever clone of an adult mammal, preserved in formaldehyde. You need a full day to digest all that there is to be seen.

Certain levels are a must. The exhibition entitled Early People, in the absence of knowing what these ancestors looked like, ingeniously employs sculptures by Sir Eduardo Paolozzi. Their story is of a generous land, their Gods, and the Viking and Roman incursions into their territory.

Kingdom of the Scots illustrates the arrival of Christianity, the Gaelic heritage and the emergence of national identity until the union of the Scottish and English parliaments in 1707. The entrance to Scotland Transformed on level three is adorned with the Royal Arms of Scotland, an emblem of the Union with England. In the same context, the Jacobite Risings and the social whirlwind of the Enlightenment are fully explored here.

The Industry and Empire displays on level four detail how Scotland became one of the most industrialised countries in Europe.

Level five features one of the most diverse collections of scientific instruments in the United Kingdom. Other floors feature specialist interest exhibitions, but the climax of the visit has to be Scotland: A Changing Nation, a diverse array of objects illustrating five central themes – War, Emigration, Industry, Politics and Entertainment.

Opened in July 2008 by Linda Fabiani, Scotland’s Culture Minister, this is the museum’s most thought provoking presentation to date. At a time when Scots are preoccupied with examining their nationhood in the context of ‘Britishness,’ the objects and topics provided for scrutiny seek to enlighten us on how all of us came to be where we are now. War illustrates how the conflicts of 1914 and 1939 impacted on daily life; Industry shows how Scottish shipbuilders, fishermen, textile mills, whisky distilleries and financial services have had to adapt to global markets.

Leaving Scotland examines the diaspora and emigration during the 20th century.

Today, as we know, more than 25 million people across the world claim Scottish ancestry. The impact of their predecessors on the lands in which they settled, and the ongoing relationship with expatriate Scottish communities is explored. A specially commissioned film One Nation: Five Million Voices captures the voices of well-known faces speaking about what life in Scotland means to them. Daily Life examines the lifestyle of everyday existence from the 1950s when 43 per cent of Scottish households did not have a bathroom. Holidays and entertainment are touched upon with items relating to Burns Night, Hogmanay and Halloween. In the collection of show business memorabilia are the dancer Moira Shearer’s ballet shoes and the crime writer Ian Rankin’s original notes for his novel The Falls.

Voice of the People touches on the changing nature of politics, from striking suffragettes in the streets of Glasgow to the conflict surrounding the introduction of the Poll Tax in 1989 and devolution of government in 1999.

The final section of this exhibition is entitled Scotland: Today and Tomorrow and I am particularly gratified to find here the original “duck”, a floating boom capable of generating electricity, designed by Professor Stephen Salter, who pioneered wave energy at Edinburgh University. I say this because I wrote on the subject more 30 years ago and at last its true potential has been recognised.

Furthermore, this prompted me to reflect on how far museums have come from the musty old rooms of my childhood.

Nowadays, a museum visit with its interactive displays and film presentations has become an adventure, which is as it should be. It took me a full week to digest what there was to be seen on that one floor alone, and even then I am having to go back for a second circuit.

In the handout publicity for Scotland: A Changing Nation, somebody has chosen a quote from Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song, written in 1932.

“With them we may say there died a thing older than themselves, these were the last of the old Scots folk. A new generation comes up that will not know them.” Thanks to NMS Director Dr Gordon Rintoul and the inventiveness of his team, that is no longer true.

Contact Museum of Scotland, Chambers Street, Edinburgh EH1 1JF Tel: +44 (0)131 225 7534 Web: Open daily from 10am to 5pm Admission: Free