For years, the Royal Museum on Chambers Street was the ‘forgotten bedfellow’ of the National Museum of Scotland. Now, after a three year refurbishment, it is ready to reopen its doors once more: with a treasure trove of objects and exhibits and a modern space which has been designed to give access to its rich and varied collection to everyone.
The grand steps from Chambers Street leading to the entrance doors of course remain: but street-level access to either side of them now leads into the new Entrance Hall. Originally the basement, the space was used to store the huge number of objects not on permanent display.
Now, with its vaulted ceiling and new Caithness stone flooring, the Entrance Hall provides a new and welcoming introduction to the museum, with a shop, a brasserie and visitor facilities. Described by architect Gareth Hoskins as like ‘holding up a grade-A listed building with one hand’, the work done on the Entrance Hall is the first sign of the museum’s impressive and modern transformation.
Newly-installed glass lifts take visitors into the stunning Victorian architecture of the Grand Gallery. As they glide smoothly upwards, they pass the Window on the World, a four-storey installation of objects from the museum’s collection. An example of the innovative work by designer Ralph Applebaum, it is intended to evoke a sense of drama and wonder: a nod to the original Victorian intention of the museum as a ‘portal’ into cultural amusement and public education.
The lifts also ensure access to the upper galleries is easy and fully accessible. Prior to the refurbishment, only around 10% of visitors ever ventured above the ground floor. Now, we imagine most people will take the lifts straight to the top, to marvel at the architecture of the Victorian ‘birdcage’ design and to enjoy the new sense of light and space which the transformation has provided.
From the Grand Gallery, 16 new themed exhibition spaces can be reached. The National Museum of Scotland’s collection is broad, encompassing science, nature and culture: but the galleries are connected by a broad theme of showcasing the Scots as a nation of inventors, entrepreneurs and explorers; their objects telling stories of the nation’s ingenuity, sense of adventure and its thirst for knowledge.
The galleries therefore include Shaping Our World, an innovative look at how technology has affected our lives; and the World Cultures galleries, bringing together objects from all corners of the world in a fascinatingly curated collection.
If like us, you have fond memories of visiting the museum as a child, then the Natural World gallery will be a welcome surprise. A stunning new three-storey installation, it is filled with some old friends – and some destined to become new favourites. Sealife exhibits ‘swim’ overhead: above leaping tigers, fighting peacocks and powerful dinosaur skeletons. The overall impact is striking and modern, and this section of the museum is likely to be the first stop for children and families.
When the museum first opened in the 19th century, the papers proudly reported that there was ‘no sign of wantonness’. Nor, we are happy to report, is there any on display today – only a stunning and impressive modern museum for the 21st century which is all set to become one of Edinburgh’s top attractions for visitors and residents alike.
The National Museum of Scotland opens to the public at 10:00 on 29 July. The grand reopening will be preceded by celebrations on Chambers Street outside at 09:15 – more information is available here.