The National Museum of Scotland is transformed for 21st century audience

By Jenni Davidson | 07 September 2011
View of the Grand Gallery in the National Museum of Scotland from the upper floor of the atrium
The view across the Grand Gallery at the National Museum of Scotland
© Jenni Davidson
Since the opening of the then-Museum of Scotland annexe in 1998, the main Royal Museum building next door has lagged somewhat behind its little sister.

The modern purpose-built space highlighted that the original building had remained an old-fashioned relic of the Victorian era. This was a feeling apparently shared by the museum’s directors. After a massive makeover, the old museum has now been brought right up-to-date.

Designed by the architect Francis Fowke and originally opened in 1866 as the Museum of Science and Art, the Chambers Street museum reopened on July 29 2011 after a £47.4 million transformation. Its new look is dramatically different, yet with respect for the original design.

Cast iron water fountain in the Grand Gallery of the National Museum of Scotland
A cast iron water fountain in the Grand Gallery© Jenni Davidson
The main concourse, now known as the Grand Gallery, has been changed from a foyer into the main centrepiece of the museum. Ccleaned up and repainted, and brighter than ever before, the exhibits have been brought out from the darkness of the back rooms and put on display at the heart of the museum.

As a result the artefacts are more coherent, and the whole feeling is more restrained. Rather than the overcrowded 19th century displays, more space is given to each one and there is room to look around and upwards.

One of the problems the refurbishment sought to address was that very few visitors ever got above the ground floor. As well as fitting a new escalator and lifts, this has been solved by organising the themed exhibits vertically in the space.

Where once exhibits were arranged by subject room by room, the Natural World gallery now stretches across all three floors. Fish and animals, cars and planes hang from the ceiling in the atriums, visually linking the floors and making use of the impressive roof height of the building.

Another new addition is the Windows on the World display, which runs along the stairs from the basement and right up the walls to the third floor, making it the largest museum installation in the UK.

A photo of stairs down to the basement and the Windows on the World display at the National Museum of Scotland
Stairs down to the basement and the Windows on the World display.© Jenni Davidson
Harking back to the original design for the museum when the main concourse and atrium were crammed full of glass display cabinets, moving exhibits onto the walls offers a minimalist, less cluttered feel and leave more space free for walking.

In some ways these are less accessible than normal exhibits, as visitors are unlikely to look at items high on a wall above their head, and it’s difficult to stop on the crowded staircase, but it is refreshing to see the full range of the collections brought out into the open and mixed together in this way.

The old and the new buildings have been unified more, so that they now seem like one museum rather than two. Unfortunately this means the loss of the excellent shop that sat between the two parts - visitors now have to run the gauntlet through the science and technology exhibition, which can be very busy in the school holidays - to get to tranquility of the Scottish galleries. But the changed layout does make sense. 

There are important new additions too, such as an educational area, which makes the museum much more accessible for schools, 50 percent more public space and 16 new public galleries.

The Victorian arches rediscovered on the first floor during restoration lend an elegant touch to the new escalator, and the new Discoveries area has an appealing range of items from different areas and periods reflecting the Scots’ influence on the world.

Some areas are currently still in flux - the escalator leads to an empty room with what appears to be a temporary shop - but this will no doubt be used in time.

A photo of the new escalator to the first floor and the Millenium Clock in the National Museum of Scotland
The escalator to the first floor and the Millennium Clock© Jenni Davidson
The biggest change has been the excavation of the basement and the move of the museum entrance to ground level. For those familiar with the museum, it feels odd to be entering through the basement, rather like coming in through the back door, and the narrow stairs up to the ground floor do get very cramped on a busy day.

While it is fascinating to see the basement opened up, and understandable that a modern museum needs more space for facilities and better disabled access, something has definitely been lost by closing the grand main entrance and turning it into a fire exit.

With a redesign on this scale there are bound to be some losses - many will mourn the disappearance of the much-loved fish ponds in the concourse, which were a favourite place to eat lunch and let the kids burn off some steam - but overall the changes have been a success in creating an international-standard museum for the present and the future.

This renovation is part of a 15-year plan to transform the museum by 2020. With so much already complete, it will be interesting to see what there is left to do during the next few years.

More pictures from the museum:

New entrance to the National Museum of Scotland
The new basement entrance
© Jenni Davidson
Basement entry hall of the National Museum of Scotland
The new Arrivals Hall in the basement
© Jenni Davidson
A suit made of silver thread in the Discoveries gallery of the National Museum of Scotland
A 17th century silver coat in the Discoveries collection
© Jenni Davidson
A giant deer skeleton in the Grand Gallery of the National Museum of Scotland
A giant deer skeleton in the Grand Gallery
© Jenni Davidson
Fish, seals and dolphins in the Wildlife Panorama in the National Museum of Scotland
The Wildlife Panorama in the Natural World gallery
© National Museums Scotland
A photo of the Windows on the World display and the optic from Inchkeith Lighthouse at the National Museum of Scotland
The Windows on the World display and the optic from Inchkeith Lighthouse© Jenni Davidson
A photo of the Grand Gallery of the National Museum of Scotland with a view of the Windows on the World display.
The Grand Gallery of the National Museum of Scotland with a view of the Windows on the World display.© Jenni Davidson
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