Saturday, 17 September 2011

The National Museum of Scotland

The National Museum of Scotland* is located in Chambers Street on the south side and connects to the University of Edinburgh quadrangle near the Georgian Gallery, which is so beautifully described in the Pandora’s Light Box project designed by Artlink and to be found at the Talbot Rice Gallery.  In the poem connected with two of the rooms, much is made of the precursor of what was to become the Royal Scottish Museum in Chamber Sstreet and recently re-opened as part of the National Museum of Scotland connecting through to the relatively new Museum of Scotland. 

This refurbished museum brings together most of the collections from ‘Chamber Street’ and ‘Queen Street’ museums, as they were known in Edinburgh.  When I was at school, we were taken to both museums and on a rainy day I would be parked there by parents and relatives while they went shopping in The Bridges, which in the early 1960s had a large selection of department stores – all of which have gone.  The old Royal Scottish Museum was thus a place of excitement, entertainment and no doubt some learning.  I can remember coming back from a holiday in Fife with some fossils (ammonites) and being told by my (Morningside) teacher to take them to the museum for identification.  This the museum unfailingly did and it is good to know that the curators are still engaged in teaching all-comers.   I had made a quick reccy with a sighted friend on how to gain entry into the building (it’s not obvious if you’re blind!), so: enter via basement.  It’s flush with street level at Chamber Street.  Glass door opens when you press button, which is not obvious. 

I knew I had to go up one level by stairs to get to the Great Gallery, which has been lovingly restored.  I could make out the fine metal work gallery supports and the natural lighting in the building.   I wandered around the ground floor and eventually found someone who got me one of the guards.   This proves that you can walk in and you will safely run into someone with a walkie talkie in case you missed the help desk.  There are information desks, but I couldn’t remember where they were.

One of the guards mentioned some restored exhibits such as the drinking water fountain which had been cleaned up and restored and I can vaguely remember it from the past.  It looks stunning with the fine metal work exposed in original colours.  I asked to be taken to the old locomotive section, and met many old ‘friends’ I had come across in the late 1950s-early 60s.  The guard told me that they were still in the process of bringing back objects which had been in storage in Granton.  My Buddha was on display, but the pendulum which had been suspended from the roof had yet to be put back. 

I knew that there was tour at 3pm as the help desk on my reccy had suggested this would give a good taste of the floor layout and that the guides were used to dealing with some people with sight loss.  This turned out to be the case and the guide suggested that I be adopted by others in the group, just in case we got lost in the museum.  The tour starts at The Lighthouse Light (from Inchkeith) and lasts about 1 hour.  The first exhibit was from the geology of Scotland starting with some Lewisian Gneiss (about 3 billion years old) which are some of the oldest rocks in the world.   The guide explained the story of James Hutton, father of geology. I studied geology and knew all about Hutton’s unconformities having been to one on the Island of Arran.   The guide invited me to touch some of the agglomerate rocks and we were all invited to touch the glacial cutting and striations of some of the rocks which illustrate Scotland’s glaciation eras (responsible for Edinburgh Castle Rock and Royal Mile).   A silver horde which had been discovered in Traprain Law was described and some people in the group asked about the source of the silver as no Scottish silver deposits had been exploited at the time. 

I could then make out the Crammond Lion, consisting of a Roman lion with a barbarian in its mouth.  It was found by a Crammond ferryman in the mud of the River Almond. (I can remember going across this in a ferry when we would walk all the way from Crammond through the Dalmeny Estate to South Queensferry.  There is an interesting historical society in Crammond with frequent exhibitions.)    There were more exhibits of Celtic and Norse silverware and jewellery.   The highlight of this is the Monymusk reliquary.  ( )  I was able to compare this object with those I had ‘seen’ at the Treasures of Heaven exhibition at the British Museum.  This section of the museum requires sunglasses as far as I am concerned.  There’s a lot of white wall space and it can be dazzling. 

An important landmark within the gallery space is the Corryvreckan tapestry.  (see )  It's in very bright red and provides a brief moment of glare relief.  The tapestry is beautiful and I could make out some of the red circular detail on my peripheral vision.  There is a bit of a wow factor about it!  It’s also a useful landmark when in the exhibition areas if you’re on your own.
We were next taken to a model of the Bell Rock Lighthouse.  The lighthouse, in the River Tay estuary, is the oldest lighthouse in continuous use.  The Bell Rock has a fascinating history.  There were then visits to some products from the Carron ironworks, an important part of the history of the industrial revolution.  This early factory, together with the chemical works and mining works in the Fife and Lothians areas, gave much of the prosperity of those active in the Scottish Enlightenment.  The Carronworks made guns for ships (the Carronade) and also produced telephone boxes and pillar boxes.

The tour ended with a display of some furniture of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and some of the pieces from Mrs Cranston’s tea rooms in Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow (Sauchie is a Scots word for willow, so the willow pattern features as a design).  There is also a display of Wemyss pottery, which was produced in Fife and is now quite valuable owing to the low temperature glaze due to high lead content and inevitable cracking. 

The tour ends near the step to the roof garden.  You have to be reasonably fit to go on this tour as there are steps to climb and it can be fast moving.  It was a good idea for me to have been adopted by a charming couple from the south coast of England, who had spent a week on Shetland and wanted to see the Saint Ninian’s Isle findings which were in the museum.  They kindly escorted me to the roof garden, where we did a 360 degree tour of the panorama of the city.  I was able to make out: the Castle, The Hub (Highland  St John’s), Saint Giles, Calton Hill, Arthur’s Seat, McEwan Hall, George Heriot's School and Greyfriars Kirk.  I said goodbye to the English couple who were doing the festival theatre and opera and hoped they enjoyed Die Frau Ohne Schatten, which was running at the Festival Theatre in a performance by the Kirov conducted by Valery Gergiev. 

A guard approached me and asked if I needed help and wanted to go anywhere else.  At this point I realised that the museum obviously has an effective relay system which can identify a blind person on their own.  I wanted to visit other items I could remember and so was taken to another landmark, which is a racing car (I think I remember when this was put here).  I asked about seeing some of the Lewis chess pieces as I had been to an exhibition the year before, when much of the collection had been assembled for the first time since they were found on the Isle of Lewis.  ( )

Next was The Maiden, a guillotine which used to be on display in Queen Street and apparently medical students still get up to pranks with it on occasions!  There was also some Mary Queen of Scots memorabilia which a guard suggested I might find interesting as we spoke about the refurbishment of Stirling Castle which I had recently visited. If there is something of specific interest, a curator can be found to help you and even arrange for you to ‘examine’ it, though this is obviously best done with a bit of forward planning.

In summary, this is a fascinating museum which has only recently been refurbished and reopened.  It brings back many, many happy memories from my childhood and it works very well if you wander in as a member of the public and enjoy a pleasant hour or two finding out something new and reacquainting yourself with some of the past.  I found all the guards interesting to talk to and very keen to hear of memories of people when they were children growing up in Edinburgh.  Although as children we were occasionally chased away by the grumpy guards in the 1960s, it was probably because our behaviour was appalling in retrospect.  Although the kids today might still be described as appalling the guards were certainly not grumpy (or perhaps our concept of grumpiness has changed).

(1st September, 2011)

*National Museum of Scotland: