National Museum of Scotland: Walking with dinosaurs on opening day

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IT WAS seven years in the planning and more than three years after the doors of the Victorian landmark closed for the biggest refurbishment in its history.

But yesterday, as the new-look National Museum of Scotland was finally revealed in its full splendour, around 5,000 people of all ages crammed into Edinburgh's Chambers Street to celebrate.

City council chiefs have agreed to close off the thoroughfare to accommodate the crowds, who roared their approval after a spectacular opening ceremony featuring a roaming animatronic dinosaur, a troupe of Japanese drummers, costumed performers abseiling off the A-listed listed building and a blast of pyrotechnics.

Within minutes, visitors were swarming all over the building, which boasts new street-level entrances leading into stone-vaulted reception spaces. By the time the doors closed at 5pm, the museum, which dates from 1886, had smashed all previous attendance records - almost three times over - with the final tally standing at 22,071.

Officials at National Museums Scotland, who reported visitors arriving at 8am, two hours before the doors opened, insisted this was more than double their opening day target figure of 10,000.

Almost 6,000 of those through the doors yesterday visited the attraction within the first hour, just 1,500 short of the previous highest attendance at the site, during the "Dinosaurs Alive!" exhibition in 2006.

• Review: 'I'd say the museum was 100 per cent better than it was'

NMS has spent 47.4 million refurbishing the old Royal Museum building on Chambers Street, which along with its modern extension, completed in 1998, is now known as the "National Museum of Scotland". Major grants were secured from the Scottish Government and the Heritage Lottery Fund.

However, the verdict of those who spoke to The Scotsman yesterday was of almost universal approval and an insistence that the final bill - which had remained within budget - was money well spent. The only, somewhat inevitable complaints were about the demise of the famous fish tanks from the main grand gallery, a move announced before the refurbishment had even got under way.

Museum officials are confident, however, that visitors will be more impressed by the new displays of more than 8,000 objects in 16 new galleries, 80 per cent of which have gone on show for the first time.

Law student Jamie Dunne, 23, from Currie, in Edinburgh, said: "I don't think I'd actually been in since I was around ten, but thought I'd come along after reading all the news coverage about the opening event. I was mainly interested in seeing the architecture of the building and the changes that had been made.

"I was really impressed with the whole undercroft of the building, which has been created in the old storage spaces. But the rest of the building just seems to be a lot less cluttered and much brighter than it was before. It just seems to be a bigger museum now."

Connie Smith, 67, a long-time financial supporter of NMS, from Bo'ness, said: "When the new Museum of Scotland opened in 1998 it made the old Royal Museum look pretty old-fashioned and rather drab, so a refurbishment like this was much needed.

"It's a much more modern museum now; it feels much more alive and there are more hands-on exhibits for people. I am still in two minds about those fish ponds, though."

Among the highlights of the new museum are a "wall of wonders", an 18-metre-high display of more than 800 objects covering all four storeys of the grand gallery, a spectacular wildlife panorama featuring an array of creatures suspended from the ceiling, and a series of world cultures galleries.

Nanny Alexandra Morrison, 40, from Stockbridge, Edinburgh, said: "I'd actually bring the children here two or three times a week because there is so much to do and see, so it's great to see it back open.

"It's fundamentally the same museum as before, except that there are so many more interactive and digital displays to see."

Rae Haigh, 68, from East Craigs, in Edinburgh, said: "I was really surprised at how many people were here - it has been mobbed all morning.

"My first impression was that it appears to be money well spent, with all the new exhibitions that have been created and things like the new escalators which go right through the building. The glass roof just looks amazing now. It is a shame they have taken away the water features, though."

Gordon Neil, 59, from Carluke in Lanarkshire, said: "I didn't realise it was the opening day today, we just happened to be in the city. The building is looking absolutely superb and there is undoubtedly much more to see than there was before. It looks like money well spent to me."

Restaurant supervisor Julie Gilzean, 57, from Dalkeith, in Midlothian, said: "This is actually my first visit here, I can't believe I've not been before as I've lived locally for 30 years."

NMS chiefs described the numbers who turned out on Chambers Street, and the final tally, as "staggering". The 10,000 target figure was achieved within the first two hours.

NMS director Gordon Rintoul said: "I'm delighted with such a fantastic number of visitors, and their reaction is testimony to the successful creation of what is now a world-class museum for Scotland, where people can see the world under one roof."

It is hoped the new facilities will boost visitor numbers at the museum to more than a million a year.

The new-look museum will be hosting a string of late-night events from the autumn in a bid to lure a new, younger, audience through its doors. The grand gallery of the museum is expected to provide a major boost for the city's money-spinning business tourism industry as it can host gala dinners for more than 900 people.

It is also expected to be deployed by the capital's main festivals and will be used for the first time - for concerts of classical Indian music - during this year's Edinburgh International Festival. The new museum also features a major new gallery for blockbuster exhibitions, although this will not open until next year when it will host two - one devoted to ancient Egyptian artefacts and the other charting the reign of a Russian empress.

The NMS visitor tally compares with the 15,653 who flocked to Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow when it reopened after a multi-million-pound refurbishment in 2006. Some 6,800 people visited Glasgow's new 74m Riverside Museum when it opened last month.