DESPITE impressive visitor figures in the first year since its £47m refit, Scotland’s National Museum is anything but world-class. In fact, its collections are baffling and incoherent, writes Tiffany Jenkins
IN 1866, Prince Albert – an important figure in Britain’s 19th century museum movement – undertook what would be his last public act. He opened the Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art, which would become the Royal Scottish Museum and Scotland’s first national public building – a place of historical and architectural significance.
One year ago, the same institution – now called the National Museum of Scotland – opened to eager crowds after a refit that cost a whopping £47.4 million. Twenty thousand visitors poured through the doors on the first day. Figures just published reveal that over two million people have visited since. Responding to the high attendance, Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary for Culture, gushed: “It has become firmly established as a world-class, must-see destination since its spectacular transformation.” The Director, Dr Gordon Rintoul, declared it one of the “great national museums of the world”.
Well, I have news for Fiona and Gordon. It is not world class, must-see, or spectacular. It quite clearly is not one of the great national museums. It hasn’t the collection to justify that term, but most importantly what it now puts on show is executed with such incoherence it is as if the curators are embarrassed by their knowledge and the artefacts. It may have the audience figures to please politicians and managers, but this doesn’t mean that it is any good. After all, the museum is free to enter and cheaper than child care.
A world class museum takes your breath away. Step into one of the many, in Cairo, New York, Saint Petersburg, or London, and the experience will jolt and transform you as you marvel at the wonder of human creativity and the inventiveness of nature. Back in Edinburgh, although there is ample potential – the building is a magnificent piece of engineering and the collection has some glories - it has been turned into a crèche with a few interesting oddities arbitrarily hung about the walls.
It is far from the first cultural centre to suffer a refit that talks down to the visitor. In Glasgow, a similar process was inflicted on another Victorian institution - the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, which originally opened in 1901. A revamp shut it in 2003, and it opened again in 2006 to cries of disappointment at the dumbing down of the much-loved palace of culture. At least at Kelvingrove – despite labels that are more suited to a nursery school – it presents its treasures well. Much worse can be found at the recently redone Riverside Museum in Glasgow, dedicated, apparently, to transport and travel. Here, whilst there are some amazing trains, buses and boats, they are put out of the way with little information. They look good, but are hard to see and examine, especially the ships, and it is difficult to find out all that much about them.
There are two central problems that dominate at the National Museum in Edinburgh. The first concerns how the institution imparts its expertise. The second, with what it thinks of the audience. These problems relate to larger issues to do with how society values knowledge, and how it considers the public. Both are done a disservice here.
Take the first problem – intellectual incoherence that reflects a limited appreciation of specialist knowledge. Upon entering the space, now through the basement (we are no longer permitted to walk through the elegant main doors), the shop and brasserie command your attention. Scattered about are a couple of random – if impressive – artefacts. An eclectic approach continues, up in the Grand Gallery, with a display that includes a drinking fountain from the 1880s, an ancient Nubian statue of the god Arensnuphis, and a complete skeleton of a giant deer found on the Isle of Man. The ‘Window on the World’ presentation, which ascends through the main gallery into the rest of the museum, shows – at a distance – old pots, a long bicycle, a large fish jaw and a few golden gods. Why are they placed where they are, rather than elsewhere? I cannot tell.
This erratic approach would be fine, if there was a semblance of coherence elsewhere. But there isn’t – it is just baffling. The collection is roughly assembled into five themes that determine what rooms and what floor they are in: the Natural World; Art and Design; Science and Technology; World Cultures; and Scottish History. These are understandable, but they are spilt into further categories that are not.
For example, on floor one, the World Cultures galleries are organised into ‘Patterns of Life’ and ‘Living Lands’; floor three into ‘Facing the Sea’ and ‘Performance and Lives’; and floor five into ‘Looking East’, ‘Inspired by Nature’ and ‘Artistic Legacies’. It is not clear what is in what area nor why, or really what they all mean. Take, as another example, ‘Science and Technology’, which should be simple.
This theme is split into ‘Connect’ on floor one, where you will find Dolly the Sheep, robots, Sir Jackie Stewart’s Formula One car, and a steam engine. But there is no connection between them, nor are they all about connecting or connections.
The museum holds some fascinating and significant artefacts but it just shoves them away, with little information, except that which might appeal to a very young child. Take the Benin Bronzes. Removed from the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin (present day Nigeria), they beautifully depict a variety of scenes including court life.
Controversially acquired by the British in the late 1880s, they sparked an artistic renaissance in Britain and changed peoples view of Africa; something the museum could discuss. Instead of showing them off, they are in a dark corridor, on Level 4 of ‘World Cultures’ in ‘Artistic Legacies’, near contemporary photographs of the modern artists - The Singh Twins, one of the frequent, careless elisions between past and present that means the historical specificity and uniqueness of the objects are lost.
Criticise the approach of the lowest common denominator infecting our cultural institutions, and you are dismissed as a snob. But really, who is snobbish here? Those who think most people deserve to be treated as if they have a brain and that there is stuff worth knowing about, or those who think folk are not up to it? Today, for all the talk of ‘access,’ and ‘relevance’ – for all the discussion of opening up museums and galleries to the public, apparently making them more democratic – contemporary trends reflect a diminished idea of the people and what we are capable of.
The Victorians are often critiqued as elitists who wanted to control the masses, and there is something in this. But the Victorians presumed that the most uncouth could be lifted out of their immediate circumstances and be transformed by the wonders of art and knowledge.
Our own contemporary cultural managers don’t think people are really up to it, and that expertise isn’t worth bothering with.
With millions more promised for this old cultural palace, it is time for a serious rethink. Curators need to trust the public, and show off their knowledge. Forty-seven million is too much pay for one pretty playground.