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Sometime back in 2010, Tychy reflected on the ongoing three-year, £46 million refurbishment of the National Museum of Scotland:

Refurbishment is an impenetrable science, and quite why most of the National Museum of Scotland should be shut down for over two years whilst they knock up a few more display cases remains a mystery. In China, the work would be probably completed overnight, but here the proceedings seem to unfold without any unsightly sense of urgency. One may be suspicious of the museum’s ambitions to make its collections more “inaccessible” and “interactive”… but the NMS promise that in the new building “80% of the objects on display will be shown for the first time”… Judgement is accordingly withheld, with the warning that this had better be good.

Judgement is now nigh. The new Museum threw open its doors at the end of July, but by August they would have needed to give away free blowjobs to tear Tychy from the Fringe. Yet I am finally here, poised at the entrance, having climbed those great stone steps. For a moment I savour the anticipation of once again pushing through the doors, before I take the plunge. My galloping elation only stumbles slightly when the hinges on the doors, which have clearly grown rusty from disuse, fail to yield. It takes a great deal of effort before I finally crash through them.

I had put off visiting the new Museum for a month, but I could have left it longer, as eleven of the proposed galleries remain incomplete, whilst the reopened rooms seem to be somewhat surprised by their visitors. The huge centrepiece elevator is not working, unless this is actually an exhibit (perhaps featured alongside the Logie-Baird colour television as an example of Scottish innovation); some displays are “under arrangement” or else “ready soon”; whilst, somewhat bizarrely, the famous Millennium Clock is still to be set to the correct time.

The goldfish have gone, and it turns out that they were exiled after being virtually convicted of treason against the Museum. One survey revealed that only 10% of the Museum’s visitors ever made it to the third floor, whilst most of their time was spent down in the grand hall watching the fish. If the Museum suspected that all of its exhibits were being upstaged by the fish, then their removal can be only construed as an act of spite. Yet with the departure of the ornamental fish pond, the whole atmosphere of the hall has subtly changed. It is no longer quite a plaza, and one finds that they cannot settle here for very long. There are exhibits waiting! Chop chop!

If the goldfish have fled with their tails between their legs, perhaps they were, on reflection, rather tacky. For the air is now heavy with opulence, and one’s heart is awed with grandeur. A trail of fossilised footprints, an Egyptian sarcophagi, a Japanese temple lamp, a Polynesian feasting vessel, and the complete skeleton of a Giant Deer, have been established around the entrance and grand hall like the latest art installations. Flocks of sewing machines and scimitars are mounted in sequence over the staircase, along with an antique aeroplane, like art decorating the walls of a fashionable restaurant, or the shop window of a department store. Yet this display of pristine but entirely random wares may ultimately herald our arrival at the largest junk shop in the world, an otherworldly manifestation of Edinburgh Bargain Stores.

But with this conception of the Museum as a shopping mall, which one floats around like a shopper without any money, detached and enchanted, a little drop of guilt detonates on your brow. Should you come here to mindlessly register each of the passing exhibits for the briefest of moments, like the most sophisticated of flaneurs in the finest of all arcades? Perhaps when walking around central Edinburgh, you should dip into the Museum for a minute or so, before rolling on to peruse Princes Street. Or should you march about on an educational mission, determined to engage meaningfully with a particular subject?

One obviously has to do both in turn, firstly taking a lengthy circuit of the Museum and then deciding which gallery to study in particular, but the exhibits are often easier to appreciate as art rather than as evidence of human progress or innovation. After a second of concentration, the mind slides off these shiny exhibits, and even the educational, interactive features which should further one’s understanding of them turn out to be somewhat inconsequential.

One environmentalist quiz raises eyebrows by insisting that a plastic bag may take over 1000 years to decompose. In actuality, modern “biodegradable” plastic bags may rot away quicker than a dead cat. Presumably the point of the quiz is to tell children off for being so wasteful, and the fact that better technology rather than improved personal behaviour solved the bag problem is, in this respect, not helpful. Another warning about the looming extinction of Panda Bears is comically undermined by appearing beside a stuffed Panda.

In the “Patterns of Life” gallery, the huge “Connections” game turns out to be a huge waste of space, as the writing only appears on the screen in a blurred, headache-inducing font. It can be seen perfectly well from the balcony overhead, but not by those actually playing the game. I got on a lot better with a computer game which simulated the consequences of reintroducing wolves to the Scottish Highlands. One has to make snap decisions about tagging wolves, culling them, and allowing tourists to view them. This game was absorbing and genuinely educational, not least because it revealed that in the modern world, nature is hardly “wild” and that it has to be managed like any other business.

They have blown the cobwebs off the natural history exhibits, and a gigantic interior is now crammed with every conceivable specimen of stuffed or Perspex creature, frozen in little dramatic postures on landscapes, in glass tanks, and amidst a massive, swirling cloud of birds and fish suspended overhead. It is probably the closest thing to being inside Noah’s ark.

They have larked about with the displays: in one, a skunk brazenly moons passers by, in another a huge leech is attached to the glass, there is a deeply creepy tank in which stuffed rats scamper through a sewer, whilst elsewhere a vampire bat takes a nip out of a human foot (which is presumably not stuffed). The taxidermy seems disappointingly Victorian, however, and given the Museum’s previous exhibition on prosthetic technology, one wonders why those stuffed hippos and aardvarks could not have been fitted with bionic limbs and joints and then turned loose in the grand hall.

When I finally resolve to learn something from a gallery, the contents turn out to be pretty meaty. As a student, I had visited the NMS to draw the gods and fetishes, which were previously kept in a quiet, cool room full of glass tanks, but now the South Sea material has been built into a huge, detailed exhibition. That sense of luxury which one felt down in the entrance is fully vindicated, whilst the flavours and colours of the South Seas are powerfully evoked.

Surely everybody wants to know about the sexual freedoms of Faraway’s islands, but on this topic “Facing the Sea” remains as tight-lipped as the missionaries who presumably collected all of this stuff. Perhaps they have no exhibits to illustrate the experiences of young sailors in paradise (I bet they do).

We are told that the seven “Collectors” whose original finds have stocked the Ancient Egypt gallery made an “important contribution to the study of ancient Egypt,” whilst the exhibition elsewhere deplores the native grave-robbers who plundered the tombs. The Museum remains oddly unfashionable in restlessly acknowledging that most of its exhibits are imperialist booty, but saying no more. If anything the Museum reminds us that the Scottish are, as a nation, worse than gypsies. They have travelled to the ends of the Earth and carried away anything that was not nailed down. But they have lately polished the spoils and one can only be dazzled by the glow.

[There is further reading here and here. Ed.]

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