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national museum in Edinburgh

Treasures From The Warehouse

Edinburgh's National Museums has nearly 12 million objects stored
away and out of sight, but this spring some of the most interesting will
go on permanent display.

BY KEITH AITKEN

Some years ago, a Sunday magazine caused a great deal of picturesque annoyance in the fashion world by the simple if devious device of photographing models from the back. All that sashaying insouciance that sells overpriced garments to the gullibly vain was suddenly shown to be held together by an unholy assemblage of safety pins, duct tape and artful tucks and folds.

A rather similar feeling took hold recently when the opportunity arose to check out the preparations for the 150th anniversary in 2016 of what is now called the Royal National Museum of Scotland. The museum, in Edinburgh's Chambers Street, is one of the great buildings of Scotland. The soaring Victorian ironwork of its main hall alone is the stuff of a million tourist photographs, and two recent radical makeovers -- a wholly new wing for the Scottish collections in 1998, and a major redevelopment of the main galleries in 2011 -- have, perhaps against the odds, made it more magnificent still. Seven million people have visited since 2011. It is a truly venerable institution, known to Scots simply by the reverent title of "The Museum," and loved the world over.

Phase Three of the redevelopment will be unveiled in step with the anniversary this coming summer. It takes the form of ten new galleries, mostly occupying the spaces between the great hall and the Scottish wing. They will refresh presentation of some favourite exhibits, and present some dazzling newcomers for the first time. In Chambers Street, the construction work is nearly done, and the hard hats are starting to tidy away their tools. But the more critical work is being done a couple of miles north, in the unlovely district of Granton. There, the Museum has its Collections Centre, where artifacts are stashed, conserved, filed, studied and restored. The Granton Centre houses some world-class expertise, fine facilities and inspiring innovation. Aesthetically, however, the museum's "back shop" looks a bit like a compound from Guantanamo Bay. Or the back of a catwalk creation.

Aside from occasional open days, this is a place kept out of the gaze of the general public. Locked away behind high electronic security gates, it started out as a retraining centre for ex-servicemen after the Second World War, and some squat structures in wartime utility brick reinforce the look of a stockade. Most of the buildings are more modern, but no less utilitarian in appearance: a mix of undistinguished concrete blocks and huge tin sheds. Inside, they have all sorts of very clever kit for keeping fragile treasures safe and well. Outside, they could not honestly be said to beguile the eye.

But they are no less central to the Museum's purpose, and arguably more so, than the elegant front-of-house building up in the Old Town. At any given time, Chambers Street can display around 20,000 artifacts across its 36 galleries -- no mean show. But that leaves the other 11,980,000 items in the collection for Granton to look after. Granton is central to keeping the "show" in Chambers Street fresh, interesting, coherent and comprehensible, and in recent months the place has been positively throbbing with activity for the new galleries that will open this year. Having been afforded a privileged glimpse of this work in progress, Scottish Life is now distinctly impatient to see the finished version in the summer.

The full text of this article is available in the Spring 2016 issue of Scottish Life.

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Photo © National Museums of Scotland