One of Britain's most popular cultural attractions, the National Museum of Scotland has today completed the final stage of a 15-year, £80 million redevelopment.
The project has completely redefined the visitor experience. Previously some displays in the museum had remained the same for over 75 years, but virtually every space has now been entirely overhauled, and hidden or forgotten treasures are now proudly on the show to the public - many for the first time.
With 28 new galleries now celebrating the best of art and design, fashion, science, history and world cultures - and some 13,500 objects on display - there's a lot to take in. Here director Dr. Gordon Rintoul gives a definitive insider guide to the best of the renewed National Museum of Scotland.
What’s the biggest change that has been made to the museum?
This opening is the culmination of a redevelopment of the entire Victorian museum, which has restored the original building, created 29 new galleries and added new visitor facilities. The overarching change is really about access, not just to and around the building but to previously unseen artefacts from the collections.
The net result is a visitor-focused transformation which has simultaneously created a 21st-century museum while restoring original Victorian architectural features that had been lost or obscured over time.
The other big change is the introduction of layers of interpretation, whether through interactive exhibits, audiovisual programmes or touchscreen information terminals. Visitor numbers have trebled since we started the project - we now welcome 2.3 million visitors per year and are proud to be the most popular museum or visitor attraction in the UK outside of London.
Can you tell us about some of the new galleries?
We opened three new galleries on February 8, 2019: Ancient Egypt Rediscovered, Exploring East Asia and the Art of Ceramics. Over 1,300 objects have been selected for the galleries, 40 per cent of which will be on display for the first time in generations or at all.
Our Ancient Egypt collections span 4,000 years of history and so enable us to explore the major developments of the civilisation, whilst also highlighting significant contributions made by Scots to Egyptology.
Exploring East Asia celebrates the dynamic cultures of China, Japan and Korea, showcasing their diverse traditions, peoples and histories. The versatility of ceramics in art and science is reflected in pieces from across the world and over a broad time span, from the 19th-century BC to the present day.
How did you decide which additional objects most deserved to be displayed?
We re-examined the collections thoroughly and identified many important items which were of far greater significance than previously thought or which had simply not been on display for generations, if at all.
The transformation of the whole museum has also enabled us to present material in a much more coherent way and with new layers of interpretation. A key focus in making display choices was, in many cases, the story behind the object in addition to its visual appeal, quality or significance.
How should first-time visitors structure their visit?
The unique thing about the National Museum of Scotland is the enormous breadth of the collection, covering diverse subject areas including natural history, science, technology, decorative art, design, fashion, world cultures, Scottish history and archaeology.
We talk about seeing the whole world under one roof which means there is something for everyone, whether you want to see Dolly the Sheep, the Lewis Chessmen, Charles Rennie Mackintosh furniture, a suit of ceremonial samurai armour or fossils which are many millions of years old.
Which works give the best insight into Scotland and what object tells the most surprising story about Scotland?
One of the founding principles of the National Museum of Scotland was to show the world to Scotland and Scotland to the world, and that remains the case today.
Objects were collected for the museum by people who are now historical figures in their own right, such as David Livingstone and John Rae.
An example of this appears the new Ancient Egypt gallery. In the Victorian period, Egyptology was sometimes an exploitative pursuit characterised by tomb-robbing and treasure-hunting.
However, it was a Scot, Alexander Henry Rhind, who was the first experienced archaeologist to excavate in Egypt. In 1857, Rhind performed the first systematic excavation of an ancient Egyptian tomb, at Thebes (modern-day Luxor). This material will be on display in our Ancient Egypt Rediscovered gallery along with an insight into Rhind’s work.
What forthcoming temporary exhibitions are you most excited about?
This summer’s exhibition, Wild and Majestic: Romantic Visions of Scotland (June 26 to November 10, 2019) will use material culture from our own collections and a range of lenders to explore the complex yet fascinating question of how tartan, bagpipes and the very culture and landscape of the Scottish Highlands and islands moved during the 18th and 19th centuries, from being contested symbols associated with rebellion and sedition to becoming the enduring romantic symbols of Scotland recognised around the world.
Another exhibition highlight will be Body Beautiful: Diversity on the Catwalk (May 23 to October 20, 2019). It is the first exhibition of its kind and will showcase work by designers embracing inclusivity and body positivity, exploring themes including size, gender and sexuality, age, race, and disability
What is the National Museum of Scotland’s greatest strength?
The National Museum of Scotland is one of the few national museums across the globe where you can explore the whole world under a single roof. It is a place where the arts and sciences intermingle, where the cultures of Scotland and the world meet – a space where the full spectrum of human ingenuity can be seen alongside the diversity of the natural world.
Where else do you recommend visitors do in Edinburgh?
The centre of Edinburgh is made for walking. Explore the historic Old Town and Royal Mile from Edinburgh Castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse and the Scottish Parliament. From there, on a clear day, take a walk up to the top of Arthur’s Seat to be rewarded with majestic views for miles around.