National Museum of Scotland celebrates 150 years

Watercolour. Picture: National Museum of Scotland.

Watercolour. Picture: National Museum of Scotland.

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IT opened 150 years ago to show how Scots seized new discoveries and new ways of thinking in a fast changing world.

And as the National Museum of Scotland prepares to celebrate its landmark birthday on Thursday, director Dr Gordon Rintoul believes the Chambers Street landmark remains as much about the present and the future as it does the past.

A watercolour of Francis Fowke's second proposal for Edinburgh museum of science and art in 1860.

A watercolour of Francis Fowke's second proposal for Edinburgh museum of science and art in 1860.

It is, he believes, how the museum’s founder Dr George Wilson would have wanted it.

Dr Wilson believed passionately in creating a very modern museum for Scotland that would hail achievements in science and technology - as well as display finds from across the globe. He famously called on expatriates to return home with objects from their adopted lands.

“The museum has never just been about Scotland. It is very much a museum about the world,” Dr Rintoul said.

He added: “The museum isn’t stuck in the past and the exhibits are not just about the past. They are about the present and we are actively collecting objects that will go on display in the future.

Scotland has been at the forefront of innovation and discovery and we have a huge number of world firsts. That is something that Scotland should certainly be proud of.

Dr Gordon Rintoul, director of National Museums of Scotland

“I guess the museum today is testament to what Dr Wilson set out to do.”

READ MORE: National Museum of Scotland unveils 10 new galleries

Amongst its vast displays are a catalogue of world firsts, from Baird’s televisor to Dunlop’s pneumatic tyre, Holden’s motorbike - and a stuffed Dolly the Sheep, a potent symbol of advances in cloning.

This summer, new additions in the 10 new galleries built to mark the anniversary - which will show decorative arts, fashion and science - include ceramics by Picasso, a 100-piece silver gilt travelling set made for Napoleon’s sister and clothes designed by Vivienne Westwood.

Thomas Archer, director of the museum in 1859.

Thomas Archer, director of the museum in 1859.

Sadly, Dr Wilson, a doctor and chemist, never lived to see the opening of the first section of the museum- then known as the Industrial Museum of Scotland - in 1866.

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Its creation was much anticipated, with Prince Albert laying the foundation stone five years earlier with a huge pyrothechnics display topping off the ceremony.

The museum collection now holds an incredible 12 million objects, from tiny insects to archaeological finds and relics of Scotland’s heavy industrial past the vast majority kept in new state-of-the-art stores in Granton.

Museum staff in 1875.

Museum staff in 1875.

For Dr Rintoul, there are two exhibits which he finds himself returning to time and time again. The first is Dolly the Sheep and the second is those connected to the “great Scottish scientist”, the late Sir James Black, who invented the heart drugs beta blockers.

“Dr Black was given the Nobel Prize for his discoveries and he really has saved millions of lives around the world. It is such a human story. Then you have Dolly the Sheep who symbolises a whole new branch of science, the benefits that are starting to flow through,” he said.

Dr Rintoul added: “Scotland has been at the forefront of innovation and discovery and we have a huge number of world firsts. That is something that Scotland should certainly be proud of.”

As he reflects on the anniversary, Dr Rintoul said that the museum will “certainly be here” in another 150 years time.

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“What will be on display, who knows?

Interiors of Museum, showing glass roof. Includes feature not present in the final design.

Interiors of Museum, showing glass roof. Includes feature not present in the final design.

“Our jobs really is to collect things today that are important. It is down to future generations to make their choices as to what will go on display. It’s a tricky business, deciding what we collect today for tomorrow,” he said.

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George Wilson, director, 1818-1859.

George Wilson, director, 1818-1859.

Engraving from 2nd June 1866. Prince Alfred opens the museum.

Engraving from 2nd June 1866. Prince Alfred opens the museum.

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