29 October 2016

The National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh is gorgeous

I have noted before that Prince Albert, the Prince Consort, was delighted with the success of the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace in 1851; he soon envisaged a lengthier list of facilities that would uplift the Great British Public via the arts and sciences. In 1861 construction of the Industrial Museum of Scotland began, with a delighted Prince Albert laying the foundation stone. What a shame he died in December of that year, before he could see the institution fully developed and opened to the public.

The original facility had begun life as the Industrial Museum of Scotland, founded in 1854 to reflect Victorian ideals of education. was renamed as Edinburgh's Museum of Science and Art. And it opened in its first bespoke buildings, in Chambers St, in 1866. In 1888 the building was finished and in 1904 the institution was re-named the Royal Scottish Museum.

Grand Gallery,
National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh
photo credit: UK Wanderer

Now leap forward a century. National Museums Scotland was formed by an Act of Parliament in 1985, combining the collections and the resources of the old National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland and the above-mentioned Royal Scottish Museum. The National Museum in Edinburgh collections were wide ranging, covering Scottish culture and history. Next door The Royal Museum focuses more on science and technology, and natural history. Happily admission is free to the two connected buildings.

In July 2011, the doors were opened to sixteen new galleries in the National Museum of Scotland. Architect Gareth Hoskins had completely remodelled the listed Victorian building with new public spaces and entrances, but it was a risky and controversial renovation. The stone-vaulted cellars were reconfigured to create a dramatic public entrance hall. New stairs and lifts took visitors up into the delicate cast iron structure of the original central atrium; this spectacular atrium of the Grand Gallery was now a balconied birdcage of iron and glass painted white and gold. Visitors went through all levels of redisplayed galleries, to the new special exhibitions gallery and learning centre.

Steam Train
National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh

You know it is a VERY large institution: it occupies a large hunk of Chambers Street. And since the latest renovations cost an eye-watering £47 million, I hope visitors love inspecting the intellectual & scientific accomplishments of Scots across the world. The museum reflects its own roots in the Scottish Enlightenment, especially the Scottish biologist Alexander Fleming's Nobel Prize gold medal for the discovery of penicillin. The Discoveries Gallery encourages visitors to meet the Scots whose ideas, innovations and leadership took them to intellectual leadership in many countries.

Other treasures, that I have referred to in this blog before, are 11 of the Lewis chessmen. The rest are owned by the British Museum in London. And a group of objects that will fascinate my students of Scottish history are the Union flag and the Scottish flag raised by the Hanoverians and Jacobites respectively at the Battle of Culloden.

Millions of visitors later, the museum wanted ten more new galleries focusing on important collections of decorative art, design, fashion, science and technology. The Heritage Lottery Fund confirmed a grant of £4.85 million to help fund these galleries, which reopened in July 2016. This major award means that over £10 million of funding was put in place for the project, including £900,000 from the Scottish Government to renew the roof of the west wing of the Victorian building, where some of the new galleries have been located.

Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, 
part of the National Museums Scotland

When you are planning a family trip to the National Museum, remember that MANY areas of collecting are on offer. The teenagers on the tour loved geology, technology and science, so that is exactly what we concentrated on. If I wanted to see archaeology, medieval objects, natural history, art and world cultures. I planned to go back by myself. 

It will surprise no-one that the National Museum of Scotland is one of the Top 10 visitor attractions in the UK, and in the Top 20 of the most visited museums/galleries in the world.


National Museums Scotland looks after museum collections of national and international importance and provides loans, partnerships, research and training in Scotland and internationally. The individual museums are the National Museum of Scotland as described above, the National Museum of Flight, the National Museum of Rural Life and the National War Museum. The National Museums Collection Centre in Edinburgh houses conservation and research facilities.


Andrew said...

The museum sounds wonderful and how advanced and perceptive of Prince Albert and those involved way back in the 1850s. I suspect I would spend most of any visit in the Royal Museum.

Student of History said...

I did your course on Architecture in Scottish Cities. Loved it.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Another reason to visit Scotland. By the way, somehow I never realized that Alexander Fleming was Scottish. From now on I will give him due credit.

Hels said...


When I was looking at Prince Albert's influence on British culture, the first thing everyone mentioned was the 1851 Exhibition at Crystal Palace. From there it was a short hop to Albert planning collections, displays and schools of the arts, music, architecture, sciences etc. So busy was his brain, he must never have slept at night.

I am very pleased Albert's planning included Scotland.

Hels said...


That was an amazing subject to study, *agreed*. But nothing prepares us for the cast iron and glass roofed central atrium of the National Museum. The original Victorian architecture was retained in the renovations wherever possible.

Hels said...


I lived in London and the home counties for two years, and have been back many times for summer holiday uni courses. But in all those years I have been to Southern Scotland only once and only briefly. So I too must put more effort into visiting Scotland.

There were many brilliant British minds who might have identified themselves as Scottish. The Museum does that very well.

Dina said...

The timing for the massive redevelopment was interesting. 2014 saw the campaign for Scotland's independence from Great Britain.

Hels said...


There are at least two different and contradictary connections between Scottish nationalism and need for independence, on one hand, and the splendid growth of Scottish galleries and museums on the other.

Firstly the very high level of pounds flowing (per capita) to Scottish cultural institutions from the national tax base might reduce, if Scotland seceded. So the galleries and museums had to act swiftly.

OR Scottish cities were so excited about the 2014 vote, they built up important cultural institutions as an attractive way of increasing the yes vote.