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Thursday, July 28, 2011

New National Museum of Scotland unveiled after £47m revamp

After a wait of more than three years, the National Museum of Scotland will finally reopen its doors tomorrow after a £47 million transformation.
While the unmistakable Grand Gallery has been preserved, many aspects of the Victorian building have been completely reconfigured, and the exhibits comprehensively overhauled.

David Forsyth, senior curator at National Museums Scotland, talked us through the changes.

Part of the problem with the original building, which is widely recognised as one of the UK's finest Victorian public spaces, is that it was extended, chopped and changed so many times over the last 150 years that it became totally dysfunctional. A stunning Assyrian relief collected by obstetrician James Young Simpson, a pioneer of chloroform, was obscured for years by the museum shop.

Not that many would have seen it anyway as only 10% of visitors to the new part of the museum, dating from 1998, ever ventured into the old section. And many of those who did got lost.

The new galleries show more than 8,000 objects, with around 80% going on display for the first time in many years.

The idea at the centre of the museum is that visitors feel as though they are walking through an encyclopaedia.

There are stuffed animals, none better known than the two pandas – Ching Ching, who died at London Zoo in 1985, and another which was used as a rug until the 1930s. But these old favourites have been displayed in a new, innovative that curators say is unlike any other museum.

The museum also celebrates Scottish invention and achievement, not least that of John Logie Baird – the world's oldest surviving colour television is there – and Alexander Fleming. In a case containing his numerous medals and gongs is the moulded penicillin he rather bashfully gave back to those who had given him awards.

The first previews took place on Wednesday with the skeleton and antlers of an ancient deer being the last, curators hope, installation headache. Some visitors may be disappointed to see the removal of the fish ponds, installed in the 1960s, but museum staff believed they were only popular because they contained moving parts.

Perhaps the most striking of the 16 new spaces is the grand gallery, which contains the UK's single biggest museum installation. Called the Window on the World, it is a true cabinet of curiosities with more that 800 objects, including a Tay Bridge girder and a 1930s gyrocopter, displayed up to 18 metres high.

Add to that Dolly the sheep and a bionic hand made from Meccano, and a Quagga (now extinct) and and you have a collection that is diverse to say the least.

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