The Museum of Scotland

By Cowan, Edward J. | History Today, February 1999 | Go to article overview

The Museum of Scotland


Cowan, Edward J., History Today


Ted Cowan visits the new Museum of Scotland and considers its implications for the nation's view of itself

The Scottish Past, it seems, is a source of perpetual anxiety to British politicians, many of whom believe that if the Scots are exposed to too much of their own history they will reshape their future in an undesirable, not to say, uncontrollable, image. It is thus truly remarkable that the dawn of a new millennium should be heralded in Scotland by the morning star of a new museum which opened on St Andrews Day 1998, the occasion marked by the presence of the monarch and by a kilt-swinging ceilidh to the strains of Martyn Bennett and Salsa Celtica. Two days later the heir to the throne visited for precisely ten minutes, he who had once resigned as president of the Museum's trustees, describing the design of architects Gordon Benson and Alan Forsyth as a `carbuncle'. The malignant, inflammatory metaphor was perhaps symptomatic of the quarrels and contentions which had plagued the Museum's progress since it was first mooted in 1952, but the word's primary connotation of a type of precious stone is also appropriate since over 10,000 objects from the nation's past are now housed in a spectacular showcase at the top of Chambers Street, Edinburgh.

The original Museum of the Society of Antiquaries was founded in 1781, largely due to the efforts of David Stuart Erskine, 11th Earl of Buchan, a patriot of republican sympathies who commissioned the massive statue of William Wallace high above the River Tweed at Bemersyde in the Scottish Borders, and who was anxious `to conserve and record everything that contributed to the distinctive identity of Scotland'. The Industrial Museum of Scotland, later the Royal Scottish Museum, was launched in 1854, taking possession of its new building seven years later. Meanwhile responsibility for the old Society of Antiquaries' collections was shouldered by the government under the new name of the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland. The latter institution, declared Sir J.Y. Simpson, now belonged to Scotland and he called upon `every true-hearted Scotsman to contribute, whenever it is in his power, to the extension of this museum as the best record and collection of the earliest archaeological and historical monuments of our native land'. After a century of uneasy coexistence the two were amalgamated in 1985 as the National Museums of Scotland; the buildings are now linked by a stone which is inscribed `Scotland to the World, the World to Scotland'.

Nothing is ever easy in the Land of Calvin, oatcakes and sulphur where, suddenly, half the population seems to have become expert on museums, their contents and display, but since criticism reflects concern, misgivings -- however misplaced -- should be welcomed rather than dismissed. The eccentric Earl of Buchan might have been as disappointed as many of his modern contemporaries that William Wallace is not so much as mentioned in the displays. Director Mark Jones explains that the version of Scottish history presented is artefactually driven while his opponents mutter darkly (and preposterously) about a conspiracy to suppress the great man's significance. What to put in or exclude must have generated the headache of the century. Even the Rennie Mackintosh-inspired Benson has allegedly complained that there is not enough of Glasgow in the show but people from Drumnadrochit to Auchtermuchty would probably, if asked, articulate similar partisan reservations.

The building itself, a product of `contextual modernism', makes several historical statements, the entrance tower reflecting the Half Moon Battery of Edinburgh Castle while the exterior is designed to blend with very different neighbouring buildings. At the same time, the views from the Museum are frequently part of the display; deliberately invited to intrude. The interior constantly surprises with its blend of intimacy and spaciousness, darker nooks contrasting with light playing on the Clashach sandstone.

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