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dinburgh's National Museum restored

An Old Friend Returns

After an ambitious 3-year restoration and expansion program,
Edinburgh's National Museum is now ready for the 21st century.

BY KEITH AITKEN

To generations of Edinburgh people it is known simply as The Museum. The capital letters are obligatory. There are many fine museums in and around Scotland's capital city. But there is only one Museum. Sometimes you might also hear it called Chambers Street. Chambers Street, just south of the Royal Mile, contains a number of terribly important buildings, including the Sheriff Courts, the Crown Office, the Old College of Edinburgh University and an excellent jazz pub. But ask a family where they're headed on a wet bank holiday, and the answer of "Chambers Street" means none of these places. It means The Museum.

Formally, if infrequently, The Museum is called the National Museum of Scotland. But that grand title conjures up little of the affection in which this gloriously eclectic Victorian treasure house is held. Or rather, was held, because for the past three years, the mighty doors atop its sweeping entry steps have been locked shut, while it underwent a comprehensive 46.4 million (about $69.6 million) redevelopment. It is hard to imagine a more sensitive undertaking. Still, unlike certain other Edinburgh capital projects, it held true to budget and to timetable, with a grand reopening on July 29, 2011. Ever assiduous on its readers' behalf, Scottish Life managed to negotiate a sneak preview ahead of the public getting in.

Details in a moment, but first impressions first: this is a highly successful refurbishment. Most museum renewals refresh the displays, change the exhibits around and update the interpretation. This one does all of these, but it also casts a spectacular new light on the most heart-stopping of all the exhibits -- the building itself. The sensation it delivers is not so much that the building is different, as that the building you believed you knew and loved all these years turns out to be twice the building you thought it was. Its familiar dusty gantries, echoing stairwells and cluttered corners have been spruced up, painted bright colours and, above all, opened out, so that dramatic new perspectives appear at every turn. The renovated main building is a major and a joyous eyeful.

Its drama grabs the visitor immediately. For 150 years, entry has been effected by scaling the steep steps from Chambers Street and passing at first floor level into the Grand Gallery, the cavernous iron-limbed atrium that is the heart of the Museum. Now that treat is teasingly postponed, and to splendid effect. The new entry is at street level, much more accessible for the infirm or unfit, and leads into a brand new reception area that was the old Museum basement.

This extraordinary space has never before been seen by the general public, having been taken up with a warren of partitioned storage, conservation and maintenance rooms.

The full text of this article is available in the Autumn 2011 issue of Scottish Life.

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Photo top left: © P. Tomkins/VisitScotland/Scottish Viewpoint. Other photos: © National Museums Scotland