Art review: Exploring East Asia, Ancient Egypt Rediscovered and The Art of Ceramics, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh

A suit of samurai armour' in the Exploring East Asia gallery at the National Museum of Scotland
A suit of samurai armour' in the Exploring East Asia gallery at the National Museum of Scotland
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The National Museum of Scotland began life in 1866. Opened by Prince Albert, it was called the Industrial Museum of Scotland and was a product of the same drive, led by the Prince, that gave us the V&A and the other South Kensington museums, all conceived as engines of economically useful, popular education. Enlarging on the same Victorian purpose, the Museum then changed its name to the Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art. In 1904 it changed its name again, but not really its purpose or character, to become the Royal Scottish Museum. In 1985 however, a development began that has, since then, changed it profoundly. The Royal Scottish Museum, as it then still was, absorbed the National Museum of Antiquities, the collection of the Society of Scottish Antiquities that had been started two centuries earlier. This accession in turn eventually prompted the wholly new building of the Museum of Scotland, joined onto the western end of the old building and opened in 1998. Then finally in 2004, a project was launched to reorganise the original Victorian building and completely transform all the displays. The first step was to create a new entrance at street-level and indeed the new ground floor onto which it opens. Much else has happened since as this radical process of renewal was taken up through the building’s many layers and spaces.

Exploring East Asia, Ancient Egypt Rediscovered and The Art of Ceramics, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh *****

Now, 15 years later, on time and on budget as Gordon Rintoul, the director who has overseen it, informed the press with justifiable pride, it has finally been completed with the recent opening of the last three galleries, Exploring East Asia, Ancient Egypt Rediscovered and the Art of Ceramics. The first two are on the top floor. Perhaps in tune with its cups and saucers, the ceramic gallery shares the first floor balcony on the north side with the museum’s cafe.

Exploring East Asia is typical of many of the new displays in bringing together a variety of objects, widely spread in both time and type. It takes as its starting point the community of ideas and culture that unites China, Japan and Korea. Buddhism is one of the features of this common culture and appropriately the galleries are dominated by a gigantic Chinese polychrome stoneware figure of Wetuo, a guardian of the Buddhist faith, and an equally monumental, Japanese bronze Buddha.

China has of course always been the dominant influence in the Far East and the displays illustrate this – a nice interactive display, for instance, typical of many throughout the museum and created in-house, gives you a chance to explore the Kan-ji script that the three cultures share. Three thousand year-old Chinese oracle bones are examples of the very earliest writing, ancestor of the modern script. The potter’s wheel and indeed porcelain itself were Chinese gifts to the wider world and a cabinet is given to their story. Here as elsewhere the quality of the objects is a reminder of the quality of the museum’s collections generally. Modern China is represented by some remarkable images of Mao and a group of happy workers.

Japanese and Korean cultures have remained distinct however. In the ceramics on display, for instance, their different styles are quite apparent. These are also brought up to date with some very beautiful contemporary work. Where the craft traditions are so strong, there is no awkward mismatch between ancient and modern. There are beautiful costumes from all three cultures including a lovely Chinese bridal outfit, a suit of Samurai armour and an exquisite Japanese woman’s robe. China has always been a great exporter and objects made for the western market are equally fascinating, especially a punch bowl commemorating Culloden with a portrait of the Duke of Cumberland. Throughout the gallery, the variety is wonderful, but thanks to the clever display it is not confusing.

Organised to tell a single story, though of course one that spans several thousand years, Ancient Egypt Rediscovered has a closer focus. You can learn here about the building of pyramids (another nice interactive display), but also, what is so fascinating about Egyptology, how personal it often is. Alexander Henry Rhind, a Scot who pioneered systematic excavation and recording in Egypt, discovered a tomb that was reused several times over 1,000 years and here we have a portrait sculpture of its original occupants, a chief of police and his wife, sitting comfortably side by side. A mummy case from a much later time is adorned with a painted portrait of the young man whose mortal remains it was designed to accommodate. A similar painted portrait of a young woman shows her elaborate jewellery in detail. It all looks very wearable. Indeed these paintings collapse the millennia, but then that is only an unusually vivid example of what the museum’s reorganisation both sets out to do and indeed frequently achieves.

There are wonderful ceramics in these galleries and elsewhere throughout many of the museum’s displays. Nevertheless a dedicated ceramic gallery should be a nice addition. Perhaps because there is so much elsewhere, however, it is nevertheless a little disappointing. Though it has some lovely things, a 12th or 13th-century Iranian bowl decorated with a lion, for instance, and some unusual ones, too, such as the ceramic nose cone of a guided missile, it nevertheless seems less rich than the other new galleries.

Altogether though, this a story of stunning success. The long process of change now concluded (though the museum will never stand still) has made it into a dramatically successful institution, brilliantly in tune with its time and yet also retaining its original character. Indeed, far from rejecting its Victorian origins, the redevelopment seems to have enhanced them. Now entered from beneath, the great, luminous central hall is still purely Victorian, but when you enter it, the stunning light and space really lift your spirits.

The museum is now the most visited attraction in the UK outside of London. Its annual visitor numbers have more than trebled over the last 15 years and now stand at 2.3 million, the equivalent of almost half the population of Scotland. Even so, the place is so huge that it doesn’t seem unduly crowded. Nor do the visitors seem like dutiful tourists ticking boxes. On the contrary, it is full of happy children, not just school parties in term time, but in the holidays, too, and they create an atmosphere of real excitement. To turn a Victorian institution into a destination of choice for 21st century children (as it is for my grandchildren) is quite an achievement. If the original Victorian institution was posited on the value of information, now what you witness everywhere is the delight of the stimulated imagination. - Duncan Macmillan