Museum opening doors on world of wonder

IT's taken years of planning, a mountain of money and acre upon acre of bubblewrap. Now, finally, one of the biggest refurbishment projects the city's museums have seen is reaching its dramatic and exciting climax.

When the old Royal Museum re-opens on Friday three years after it closed, its glittering new galleries will showcase a wealth of objects, some familiar from previous visits, most refreshingly new, each utterly fascinating.

From the vaults beneath the Grand Gallery on Chambers Street - formerly used for storage, now a new street-level entrance foyer - across its grand Victorian balconies to the top of what promises to be a stunning glass "wonder wall" crammed with prized objects, museum chiefs promise there will be something for everyone.

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Around 80 per cent of objects in the 36 galleries - 16 of them brand new - have never been on show before. Others are the pick of nearly two million items removed from the old museum, all of which were carefully wrapped and then placed in storage to allow the massive refurbishment to take place.

To show them off, the museum - which has been revamped to the tune of 47.4 million and which will now be known as the National Museum of Scotland after merging with its younger sister the Museum of Scotland - has been split into five key galleries, namely Discoveries, World Cultures, Natural World, the child-friendly Adventure Planet and Imagine. Each gallery is sub-divided into various smaller exhibit spaces.

At its heart, stretching four storeys, will be the ultimate display cabinet, Windows on the World, which alone will contain 800 objects from the museum's collection - from a mineral sample taken from Mount Vesuvius to a gyrocopter.

Many of the exhibits were brought to Edinburgh from far-flung corners of the globe, others are within touching distance of home.

Here we focus on some of the fascinating items rooted in Edinburgh life with which visitors to the newly refurbished museum are about to become much better acquainted.

'I loved the insects in their glass cases'

THE Royal Museum in Chambers Street has been part of Edinburgh's cultural life since 1854 when it opened as the Industrial Museum of Scotland. And many who have passed through its doors have been left with vivid memories...

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City council leader Jenny Dawe recalls: "Memories of my own childhood visits are intertwined with those of visits with my four sons on our rare 'home leave' from Africa . . . vast stuffed animals, enormous skeletons overhead, pushing buttons and turning wheels of mechanical displays, Egyptian mummy cases that I could swear smelt of dust and horror.

"A more unique memory, that I guess I always knew was probably not true but I believed at the time, was that the stuffed wild cat in the museum, before it became too mangy for display, was the very one that my grandfather had tackled with his bare hands when it confronted him on his walk barefoot to school from his croft home in Marishadder, Skye."

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Ship enthusiast and Evening News columnist Susan Morrison, right, has fond memories of the place, but also recalls a heated debate with a fellow ship fanatic about two models on display.

"I remember us nearly coming to blows," she laughs. "It was at the model of the Aquitania and the row was over the Berengaria. This bloke claimed it had been built on the Clyde. The Aquitania was, but the Berengaria wasn't - she was built in Germany under the name Imperator, I believe.

"He wouldn't believe me - so I nearly decked him. We had to fight in hissed whispers, though, it being the museum and all . . ."

Medical thriller writer Ken McClure, top right, recalls the museum as more than a place to search out antiquities. "My main memory is going there to hunt down girls," he laughs. "In my youth it was one the few places open on a Sunday, so groups of boys and girls would go through the pretence of looking at the objects when really they were watching each other."

Fellow author and science teacher Gill Arbuthnott credits the museum with helping her launch her writing career. "I was there one day with my kids and as I hadn't heard or read anything about the Millennium clock, seeing it was a complete shock. It was amazing." It fired her imagination and inspired her to write The Chaos Clock, the first of her eight books.

But actress Morag Siller - whose television credits include Marilyn Dingle in Emmerdale and roles in Casualty and Monarch of the Glen - recalls it for different reasons.

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"I was in fifth year at James Gillespie's and when we got bored at school we'd skive off and go to the museum because it was free.

"I loved the dinosaur bones which gave you an idea of the scale of these creatures. And I loved all the insects in their glass cases too. I was fascinated by the models of ships squeezed into bottles. I could never understand how they did that or even why."

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Radio Forth 2 presenter Bob Malcolm remembers an unfortunate episode there as a schoolboy: "I got lost there during a school visit in 1962. I was at Carrick Knowe Primary and was amazed at the working machines - I loved pressing the buttons and forgot I had to meet the teacher at the front door.

"They put a search party out for me and my best pal Davie Johnstone, who is now the guitarist with Elton John's band. We were found, one hour later, and banned from going back."

Writer and broadcaster Roddy Martine has two abiding thoughts of the museum. "My childhood memories are of glass cases filled with fossils and stuffed wildlife, the goldfish in the ponds, and the large ornamental clock which stood at the end of the imposing amphitheatre."

As an adult, he helped organise one of the first social events to be held under its spectacular roof. "In 1987 around 800 guests attended the Oriental Ball, wearing almost every imaginable interpretation of Eastern costume. Since then the museum has been the setting for a string of memorable events, not least its own annual fancy dress parties."

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