National Museum of Scotland

Gordon Rintoul

National Museums Scotland

Chambers Street Edinburgh EH1 1JF

Edinburgh, Scotland
Museums + Heritage Award 2012 for Permanent exhibition

Transforming the National Museum of Scotland

The transformation of the National Museum of Scotland has created a museum experience unlike any other, seamlessly integrating a dramatically restored Victorian museum building with internationally important collections and innovative interpretation and programmes.

With 3.5 million visitors since it opened in July 2011, the Museum has become the UK's most visited attraction outside London, an exceptional outcome for a city with a population of just 450,000.  Visitation is almost two and a half times the previous level. A review of global museums by The Art Newspaper placed the Museum on the 2012 Top 20 most visited art museums and galleries in the world and it also leapt into the 2012 Top 10 UK visitor attractions, the first Scottish attraction to do so.

National Museums Scotland is one of the UK''s leading museum services. It has a national and international reach, operates four museum sites and has over 4 million objects in its care.  The organisation is funded by a direct grant from the Scottish Government, plus income generated from commercial activity, admission tickets, membership schemes, charitable donations and fundraising. The National Museum of Scotland is its flagship site, situated close to Edinburgh Castle in the heart of Edinburgh's historic Old Town.

Among major national museums across Europe, the National Museum of Scotland is unique in presenting the world under one roof, illustrating science and art alongside the natural world and cultures across the world - all within a context of Scotland and Scots as great inventors, explorers and adventurers.  We integrated a vast disparate complex of two buildings (36,000m2), opened up new public spaces, created 16 new permanent exhibition galleries and established a three-storey Learning Centre, trebling the amount of public programmes we offer. This was the first time since the Museum originally opened in 1866 that its purpose and nature had been fundamentally re-examined and re-invented.

Our overall objective was to restore the nationally important Victorian building to its original glory, bring thousands of objects from the collections out of storage, and engage a much larger and broader audience with inspiring new experiences.

The project involved eight years of planning and development. A team of experienced architects, exhibition designers and other experts were appointed, and a multi-disciplinary internal team assembled. Expert external advisers from a wide range of major museums in the UK and internationally were consulted and study trips were made to explore best practice across the world. Teams of curators and educators researched many thousands of objects across our collections: experts in silver and sea lions, amethysts and airplanes, Inuits and engineering, label layout and learning outcomes, all worked together.

A key element of the project was a strong visitor focus. This involved extensive public consultation as the project was being developed, while work was taking place and after the Museum reopened. This all fed into the facilities provided, the approach taken and the nature of our ongoing programming for the public. Critically important was the creation of an extensive and imaginative range of public programmes alongside the new exhibitions and restored building. This was seen as being key to sustaining and retaining visitor numbers and interest in the Museum. Visitors can now enjoy a world-class museum, with state of the art interpretation, which meets their 21st century expectations.

Nearly 20,000 m2 of exhibition galleries now sit in five clear zones which visitors find much easier to understand and navigate. New Natural World galleries take visitors from the beginning of the universe to the future of our planet, and new World Cultures galleries present the diversity of human life across five continents. The redevelopment brought a total of 8,000 additional objects into public view - 80% for the first time in generations - with a total of 20,000 objects on display across the whole site. Within thematic galleries, we have drawn from our multi-disciplinary collections to create stimulating juxtapositions, and we emphasise the stories of those behind the objects - collectors, inventors and Scottish pioneers like John Logie Baird and Sir Alexander Fleming. Object stories are brought to life by labels, video, sound, first person interpretation led by new Enabler staff plus over 200 interactives, both digital and physical. Interactives range from immersive cinematic experiences to lively hands on areas. Visitors can mix their own music from the Museum's ethnographic archives, or experience animal senses through thermal imaging and infrasound.

At the heart of the Museum we created the ls"Window on the World' - an intuitive ls"menu' to the collections on display, and the largest single museum installation in the UK. Bold in conception and execution, it showcases 800 objects on a ls"wall of wonders' stretching up and across four levels. Mixing the tiny with the huge, the technical with the beautiful, the familiar with the exotic, it has delighted, surprised and enthralled visitors.

We commissioned a New Zealand Maori artist to restore and reinterpret an early 19th century Maori war canoe, a Portuguese-Angolan artist to create original musical instruments which can be played by visitors, and a local artist to work with Chinese community groups to create an eight-metre dragon for a children's gallery. We purchased works by contemporary indigenous artists to act as a counterpoint to our historic collections, and new specimens demonstrate the extraordinary artistry of our in-house taxidermists.

Access for disabled and general visitors was improved significantly by creating two new main entrances and a new Entrance Hall at street level. This involved excavating a new public space from what were previously unseen storage areas; installing escalators up through the centre of the museum; and providing new lifts - including panoramic glass lifts with spectacular views of the Grand Gallery at the heart of the building.

The project also created a three-storey Learning Centre. This has an Auditorium, two studio classrooms, a Seminar Room and an events space which are now constantly in use, with a busy programme of events and activities for schools, families and adults. The Museum complex offers a fine dining restaurant, an informal brasserie and a cafeacute;, plus a smaller pop-up cafe on busy days and for special events.  We have also added a new picnic area for groups and families. All but the restaurant are new additions, created as part of our redevelopment. There are three shops, one specialising in Scottish gifts, another focused on the topic of the current special exhibition, and a main shop with merchandise relating to all areas of our collections; two of these shops are brand new.

The National Museum now also features one of Scotland's largest special exhibition spaces. The new space is 25% larger than previously, and spectacular exhibitions of international importance have already been held in the gallery, such as Catherine the Great from the State Hermitage, St Petersburg and Vikings! from the Swedish History Museum. 

Work to transform the Museum began in April 2008, and it opened to the public on 29 July 2011 with extensive UK and international media coverage.  Funding was secured from the Heritage Lottery Fund pound;17.8m (euro;22.29m), the Scottish Government pound;16m (euro;20m) and pound;13.6m (euro;17m) secured through fundraising from charitable trusts and foundations and individuals. The fundraising campaign engaged over 1,100 donors, locally, nationally and internationally, and exceeded its target by pound;1 (euro;1.25) million, despite the global economic recession. Despite the complexity and many challenges, the project was delivered on time and on budget. 


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