The Art Fund Prize 2009 interview: Scotland - A Changing Nation at National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh

By Ben Miller | 07 March 2009
A picture of The Art Fund Prize logo

Aiming to “tell the story of Scotland to the world”, the Scotland: A Changing Nation exhibition is the National Museum of Scotland’s first permanent exhibition, uniting a major collecting effort across five themed areas. Director Gordon Rintoul spoke to Culture24 after a day in front of the judges.

A picture of people looking at exhibits in cases in a gallery

How is the new gallery bedding in?

It’s been an exciting day, we’ve had the judges up today. They play it very close to the chest, but obviously we believe in the gallery and we’re very pleased with it and with the public and critical reaction to it.

How did the judges react?

After our presentations we gave them a tour and they came back and didn’t seem to pick us up on anything, so that was good. You’re always nervous but I’m not in any sense nervous about the gallery failing to deliver. We gave presentations on the ethos and thinking behind it, they came back and asked us a few questions and they seemed fairly positive and well-disposed towards it.

As always there are practical constraints and considerations that you work within, but I don’t think they thought there were any glaring omissions.

So you’re feeling confident about your chances?

I do feel confident. I’ve been very pleased with the reaction that the gallery has had since we opened in July 2008. I’ve no reason not to feel confident that we’ll go on to the next stage.

What made you apply for the Prize?

We felt we had a strong case, an interesting, engaging new gallery looking at an entire nation, which is quite unique compared to the other entries so there was something worthy of being included. Obviously there are some very good competitors from around the UK, but we felt that it’s the Museum of Scotland, it was ten years old last year and this is our first permanent gallery, tackling a huge and important subject.

To a man and woman the critics have been positive about it and it has engaged with the visitors as well. We’ll hear at the end of April, there are only four on the shortlist so that’s the next step. We’ve got all fingers and toes crossed. I just hope that the gallery and the people of Scotland have spoken for themselves and that’s enough to sway the judges. Even to get to this stage…there’s much talk of it being called a longlist, but I can’t call it that – it’s only ten museums and galleries. There have been a lot of exciting things all over the country during the past 12 months. It sounds a bit hackneyed, but it is a great honour to be in the ten.

How does it feel to be up against another Scottish gallery on the list?

I think that’s good, it’s indicative of the strength of the Scottish cultural sector. It’s for the good of us all.

What sort of support have you had?

I’ve looked at some of the comments and again people are saying they’re not surprised, congratulating us and saying ‘go for it’. I think people are pleased to see it recognised because it’s very much personal stories in the gallery. It’s not our view of Scottish history, it’s articulating the voice of people, so I think people are excited in the sense that their stories have been recognised.

What was the build-up to the gallery opening like?

It was manic in the six months beforehand. The whole thing took three to four years of planning. There were areas where we didn’t have a lot of material, so we had to do a lot of acquiring and collecting, and there was a lot of intense work done in that six months between the start of 2008 and the 11th of July. I was so busy on the night of the opening I didn’t even get a whisky, which was most disappointing. I went to the pub afterwards and made up for it.

What will you do with the money if you win?

I think the idea is that we’ll put it towards improvements on the gallery. At no time have I ever said that this gallery is the last word – it’s very much a springboard to further collecting and there’s not really an equivalent in Wales or England, so I think we would want to expand what we offer in the gallery and also look at making the gallery more accessible online to develop it on the web.

We’re not sitting back here in Chamber Street telling the story of the Scottish people, we’ve always tried to get out there and we would use the money to facilitate that sort of work, getting out there and collecting more stories. It’s a constantly evolving thing, and compared to the other five floors of the building it’s a very flexible space. We said right from the outset that there was no way we could do the complete story of Scotland since 1940, nor would you want to particularly. So we could take some cases out and slot in new exhibits, like a modular approach.

Does your nomination feel like a justification for all your hard work?

That’s exactly it, because it’s a difficult job to do the 21st century as everybody’s got a view on it. I think for the team it’s an absolute pat of the back. It justifies what we’ve done and the way we’ve approached things.

Who do you think should win the Art Fund prize 2009? Tell the judges who you think should win and why by visiting the Art Fund Prize website. You can also add comments - a selection of which are regularly added to the website.

Read about more of the museums on the Art Fund Prize 2009 longlist on Culture24.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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