The main event: Robert Burns Birthplace Museum

OF THE 5,000-plus artefacts housed by the new Robert Burns Birthplace Museum - from the original manuscripts of Auld Lang Syne and Tam O' Shanter to the leather tawse used by his mother on the budding poet's bahookie - director Nat Edwards has two particular favourites.

One is a small plaster apple, about an inch and a half high, given by Burns to his brother as a wedding present. Since the apple is a Hellenistic fertility symbol, Edwards explains, "it shows that Burns was actually very well educated, despite his humble background: he knew his classical literature. But it's also exactly the sort of rubbish present one man gives another, so it reveals him as a personality too."

The second item, Edwards continues, is "this wonderful travelling pen set he had, with a tiny bottle of ink, a little knife and some goose-feather quills in a case, very battered and well used. It's the practicality of it, somehow, that really conjures the way Burns wrote, often out in the country; certainly not sitting in some studio. Sometimes he wrote on horseback, or upstairs at an inn, or at a drinking club in Edinburgh, and this particular object really brings that spontaneity to life."

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Bringing the national bard to vivid and multi-dimensional life is emphatically the mission of the new museum, a custom-built facility in Alloway that's been painstakingly integrated with the village's other Burns sites, and is routinely described as the largest, most ambitious project ever undertaken by the National Trust for Scotland. While the record size is readily measured by its 21 million budget, the ambition, Edwards says, consists in the museum's transformative vision.

"With most Trust properties, our remit is primarily one of preservation, but here we were able to think from scratch about the fundamental issues. What does Burns mean to us today, in Scotland and internationally? What should a literary museum be today? Not only does the new museum enable us to house the world's most important Burns collection under one roof, it gives us the chance to present it in new ways, with the space to come alive, so that visitors' engagement with Burns will be a thousand times more intense than it could have been in the past."

Provocatively introduced by Hugh MacDiarmid's comment on Burns from A Drunk Man Looks At The Thistle - "Mair nonsense has been uttered in his name/Than in ony's barrin' liberty and Christ" - the main exhibition's themes of "Identity", "Inspiration", "Fame" and "Creative Works" arose organically from the collection's contents.

"The objects we have tell some stories very strongly, others less so, and we found that the stronger ones linked to four key sets of questions," Edwards says.

"Who was Burns, what made him who he was, what were his relationships as a son, a brother, a father? How did his environment and his time trigger and shape his writing? How did others perceive and respond to him, personally and publicly? And then lastly, how do all these elements come together in the actual poems? "The other advantage of a thematic over a chronological approach," he adds, "is that we can change the exhibits round. There'll be about ten per cent of the collection on display at any one time, but we're planning to rotate different items within the broad themes every six months or so."

Besides ample, state-of-the-art archive storage, the museum itself also incorporates a large temporary exhibition space which will initially show a series of new Burns portraits by Peter Howson. Such contemporary artistic responses will alternate with displays examining aspects of the poet's life and work in greater detail than in the main exhibits, complemented further by a live performance programme of music, theatre and literary events.

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Beyond the new building itself, extensive landscaping and an array of artworks and craft installations (including a seven-foot bronze mouse, by award-winning sculptor Kenny Hunter) now connect it seamlessly with other iconic Alloway destinations such as Burns Cottage, the Burns Monument, Brig o' Doon and the Auld Kirk.

Perhaps the other most striking innovation is the museum's prominent use of Scots within the displays' interpretative text. Apart from appropriateness to its subject the gambit also contributes to the pervading spirit of irreverence that visitors will encounter.

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"It's meant we can be a little bit cheekier and more adventurous with language than we could have got away with in English," says Edwards. "There'll be quite a few things about the museum that people will be surprised by, maybe even shocked by - but we wouldn't be doing Burns justice if we didn't take risks. He wasn't a safe, establishment, conservative figure, or someone who backed down from a challenge, or who made life particularly easy for himself." v

The Robert Burns Birthplace Museum opens to the public on Wednesday.