Scotland prides itself on its heritage, and its splendid history is about to be laid bare in Edinburgh's new And, the building that surrounds them is as impressive as the
treasures inside. Words: Susanna Beaumont
PACKAGING UP THE PAST CAN BE A TRICKY business these days. Once upon a time. museums were grand and intimidating architectural affairs housing the history of kings and queens. Today talk is of a ‘sensitive architecture' and the 'people's past'. For over 40 years. a museum devoted to Scotland‘s history was just a glint in the nation's eye. Now the nation is to have a Museum of Scotland — and the time could not be more pertinent. The £64 million. spanking new museum will soon be joined by Scotland's new parliament. located less than a mile away at Holyrood.
These days architecture is big business. It can catch the eye of the world's media — remember Bilbao‘s shiny Guggenheim Museum which entranced the global press a while back — and act as potent symbol. For the new Museum of Scotland. the brief to the architects was to design a suitably impressive home for no less than 12.000 objects from the priceless to the prosaic: a steam engine through to Bonnie Prince Charlie‘s cape. Mary Queen of Scots' ear-rings and the less romantic (but probably more pungent- smelling) late 20th century trainers of actor Richard Wilson.
For Benson and Forsyth. the London-based firm of architects who won the commission. ‘the challenge was to integrate a modern building into a World Heritage Site [Edinburgh’s Old Town] without it being a pastiche.’ according to project architect. Peter Wilson. Quite a challenge. in a city known for its conservatism and stone and mortar properness when it comes to contemporary architecture. But far from tugging their collective forlock to the city’s architectural past. Benson and Forsyth have produced a resolutely contemporary building. (One wonders how Enric Miralles. the Spanish
architect appointed to build the new Parliament will fare down in Holyrood).
However. brickbats have not been unknown. Initially Prince Charles — always one to champion the meat-and-two-organic- veg style of architecture — threw criticism at the proposals. Nevertheless. word in Scotland’s design world is that the new museum is the most confidently contemporary and good-looking building to grace Edinburgh in decades.
It was back in I952 when a site in Chambers Street was first earmarked for the
new museum. The shuffle of politics and the vagaries of sourcing funds put project in and out of cold storage for decades until 1989. when the go-ahead was finally given.
Neighbouring the well-ordered Victorianism of the Royal Museum of Scotland. it was crucial. says Wilson. that the new museum was considerate of its elderly neighbours: it had to be daring without being too up-starterish in its modernism.
‘The museum follows the street and nestles.‘ says Wilson. 'It is knitted into the site. the street line and the vistas.‘ A statement to the glories of the asymmetrical. the museum is a monumental interplay of curves and angles. It throws together a giant corner drum. slanting wrap-around walls. overhanging lintels. irregular fenestration and a skyline topped with a curving. boat-like roof-top terrace. What's more. it looks as if the whole edifice has been dipped in honey. Great slabs of Glashach sandstone. quarried in Morayshire. clad the exterior throwing off a golden glow.
Inside light drops through the four-storey interior from skylights. It is a well-articulated interior. with hints of the influence of architect supremos Le Corbusier. Mies van der Rohe and the more local Charles Rennie Mackintosh. ‘There are many architectural refrences absorbed into the vocabulary to become a quintessential individual.‘ says Wilson. Importantly. believes Wilson. the interior has been influenced by the objects on display.
While out to avoid spoon-feeding visitors with easy-to-digest historical nuggets — this is a‘brains-on museum‘ according to many working there — it will nonetheless offer a well-signposted journey through the nation‘s history. A succession of five time-zoned spaces will march through the centuries.
negotiating well-known facts and the obligatory fictions.
‘You make visual links across the space.‘ says Wilson. ‘You can also glimpse through the fenestration at the city.‘ But according to Wilson. the museum is ‘gloriously concluded in a fantastic panorama offered by a roof-top terrace.’ Wilson is clearly a fan. but only time will tell if the museum puts Scotland on the world‘s contemporary architecture map.
The new Museum of Scotland opens to the public on Tue 1 Dec.
A quick guide to what’s in the new museum. Beginnings: Scotland's Geology and Natural History
When: 3,300 million to 5,000 years ago or the landscape that time has not quite forgotten. Where: Appropriately in the museum's bowels. What: The golden age of natural disasters is revisited: the era of icebergs, volcanoes and a host of scary animals.
Significant Objects: The oldest fossils in Scotland; dioramas charting the evolution of Scotland’s wild animal inhabitants.
Early People: Scotland in Pre-History
When: c8000 BC—lOSO AD.
Where: Next door to Beginnings.
What: Man - and woman — arrive on the nation’s stage at around 8000BC. Hunting and gathering are the order of the day, together with a wealth of rituals concerning death and getting to grips with the meaning of life. As the centuries roll on, Scotland becomes increasingly popular with foreigners: visitors include Romans and Norsemen on extended day-trips.
Significant Objects: The Hunterston Brooch, dating from around 7OOAD.
Kingdom of the Scots
When: 1100—1707 AD.
Where: Ground floor.
What: The Stewart monarchy and the Church become society’s dominant players. Merchants enjoy a brisk trade With the Continent, life in the ’burghs’ gets bu5y and the nation asks a few pertinent questions about its religious beliefs.
Significant Objects: The Monymusk Reliquary — a portable shrine dating from around 7SOAD, which was believed to contain the remains of St Columba. The LeWis Chessmen and the Penicuik Jewels.
Industry And Empire
When: 1707—1914 AD.
Where: First and second floors — echomg the extent of the one-time British Empire?
What: Scotland flexes its engineering muscle and satisfies its thirst — the shipbuilding and whisky industries take off. As do millions of Scots who search for a life abroad as the reSult of Jacobite Risings and land clearances. Significant Objects: The Ellesmere, Scotland’s oldest locomotive built in Leith and dating from 1861.
When: The last 98 years to the present day. Where: Top floor.
What: The People’s Century. Everyday folk, celebrities and Significant individuals were invited to select objects of influence in their lives.
Significant Objects: Saab Convertible (Kirsty Wark: ’When you reach the far Side of 40, you look a bit Sllly in a sports car, but in an open- topped Saab you can run around until you're 85’); newspaper delivery bag (Ally McCOist: ‘I used to do what seemed the biggest Sunday paper round in Scotland — now the bag seems to represent a connection to my past'); washing machine (Elaine C. Smith: 'lt liberated women from the drudgery of the public washhouse and being constantly chained
to the Sink’).
l9 Nov—3 Dec l998 THE “ST 23