Enlightening Strikes: The Refurbished National Museum of Scotland Reveals How a Small Nation Helped to Shape the Modern World

By Devine, T. M. | New Statesman (1996), August 22, 2011 | Go to article overview

Enlightening Strikes: The Refurbished National Museum of Scotland Reveals How a Small Nation Helped to Shape the Modern World


Devine, T. M., New Statesman (1996)


The National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, home to an international collection of objects spanning a wide range of civilisations, science, technology and the natural world, unveiled its most significant redevelopment in over a century on 29 July. The refurbishment of the old and much-loved museum in Chambers Street has restored it to the Victorian grandeur of its early years, and also created 16 galleries that will showcase 8,000 objects, most of them on display to the public for the first time. The major Discoveries gallery, for instance, will not only tell the stories behind some of the museum's most treasured objects but have at its core the physical representation through material culture of Scotland's global reach down the centuries.

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The nation's central role in the British empire is now familiar to scholars, but much less so to the people of Scotland or visitors to the country today. The new gallery will change that, because so many of the artefacts on display are the fruits of empire, brought home by the many Scottish adventurers, merchants, soldiers, missionaries, administrators, physicians and engineers who spent time abroad in imperial service.

Parts of that story may be uncomfortable for some. The reputation of the Scots as the hard men of empire was no myth. In the latter part of the 18th century, as many as one in four of the regimental officers in the British army was a Scot, a proportion far in excess of the Scottish share of the British population.

This summer, thousands of visitors will once again crowd the Edinburgh Castle Esplanade to witness one of the world's great military spectacles, the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. The stars of the show, as always, will be the massed bands of the Highland regiments--the incarnation of the Scottish military tradition--as they march past, attired in kilts, sporrans and tartans, to the old tunes recalling past glories. Not everyone will be aware that some of the battle honours on display were won in the vast territorial expansion of empire in distant lands and against native peoples during the 18th and 19th centuries. At that time, the Scottish nation revelled in its status as the martial spearhead of the empire, with the Highland regiments as the cutting edge.

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One object in particular that can be seen in the Discoveries gallery will remind visitors of this saga of violence. The Seringapatam sword is a ceremonial weapon of great beauty, with a golden hilt embellished with diamonds and scabbard made of gold-mounted leather. It cost 200 guineas in 1800.

The sword was a gift made by senior officers to their Scottish general Sir David Baird to commemorate his victory over Tipu, sultan of Mysore, in 1799. Tipu was one of the greatest Indian commanders of the time and had successfully resisted the spread of British rule for many years in southern India.

The capture by Baird and the Highlanders of the sultan's capital, Seringapatam, was a great milestone in the creation of British India. The victorious troops ran amok, slaughtering many thousands of the city's inhabitants and carrying away pillaged treasure of great value. Today Tipu is remembered and revered as a hero of national resistance in India and Pakistan.

Yet the Scottish impact abroad was far from being only violent and brutal. Today's National Museum of Scotland grew out of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, founded in 1780. The society was one manifestation of an extraordinary period in the nation's history, the Scottish Enlightenment.

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