How not to organise a museum

The new National Museum of Scotland is let down by the fact you can’t find the entrance let alone what’s in the collections.

Tiffany Jenkins

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The National Museum of Scotland, slap-bang in the centre of Edinburgh, has reopened after three years following a £47.4million refit. Promising ‘one of the UK’s best days out’, it has already attracted more than 100,000 visitors in just six days.

It’s certainly busy when I, accompanied by some children, visit – full of festival-goers, parents and lots of kids running past a unique royal-group burial from Ancient Egypt, a vast steam locomotive, an Assyrian relief and stunning contemporary crafts.

But despite the increased footfall – in certain galleries – it is crystal clear that although the refit has improved the look of the building, doubled the café space and created nicer gift shops (all good things, even if it did take 25 minutes to order four diet cokes), there is a fundamental problem with the reorganisation. And it’s this: I still don’t know what exactly is in the collection! Three visits in and I am still flummoxed. This is mainly because the collection is grouped around confusing and, sometimes, meaningless themes. When you do stumble upon something interesting – usually through luck – there is limited information about it, despite the proliferation of interactive booths which are over-directing but un-informing. I like a bit of serendipity, but when I visit a gallery I like to at least leave with a comprehensive picture of what it is possible to see there.

The museum has long been a popular favourite. Completed in 1866, the main entrance led up and into a beautiful, light-filled Victorian hall, which has now been cleaned and opened up. Today this space is glorious – bigger and brighter and, as present-day director Gordon Rintoul accurately describes it, looking like a ‘giant birdcage’.

Although more objects are now being displayed, they are a bit thin on the ground. The grand gallery feels like a busy shopping mall, and the few, albeit fantastic pieces that are out – such as a Robert Stevenson lighthouse lens and a 12 foot-long feast bowl from the Cook Islands in the South Pacific – are mere decoration. The space is almost spectacular, but more artefacts should be being showcased, not neatly positioned up the staircase for people to glance at as they pass. And there are too few seats – the space is more of a walk-way than somewhere to sit and reflect.

For all the buzzwords in gallery circles about the importance of access, it is very difficult to get in. Literally. There is a main staircase up to the old entrance, which used to take visitors into the grand hall, but the doors are now locked. Now people are expected to enter by the (new and very nicely done) basement off to the sides. Unfortunately, the all-too-visible steps to the old entrance are what most people see first. I have watched countless folk walk up, rattle the doors in surprise, only to be redirected by a friendly guard who is posted there to send the flow of people back down and around.

The guard explained to me that one reason the doors had been shut was that audiences found the outdoor steps ‘intimidating’ and they ‘put people off’. Another museum official accounted for the locked doors with the explanation that they wanted everyone to go through the same (basement) doors. Why not have both the old and the new entrances? Otherwise it looks very odd.

Once you make it inside, the museum is organised into five themes: World Cultures; the Natural World; Science and Technology; Art and Design; and Scottish History, which, as the 15-year-old who accompanied me suggested, eyes-rolling with a sigh, ‘are the curriculum subjects’. These themes are just about okay. It even seems possible to work out what might be in them. But the themes are then spilt into further vague categories. For example, on floor one, the World Cultures galleries are organised into ‘Patterns of Life’ and ‘Living Lands’; floor three into ‘Facing the Sea’ and ‘Performance and Lives’; and floor five into ‘Looking East’, ‘Inspired by Nature’ and ‘Artistic Legacies’. Which is about as clear as mud.

What’s frustrating is that the opaque categorisation is unwittingly hiding the museum’s riches from the public. Take its stunning (and controversial) collection of Benin Bronzes depicting the life of the Kingdom of Benin, which were taken in a putative expedition by the British Army. They are a must-see. Both beautiful and informative, they raise important questions about how museums obtained some of their objects. But could you work out where they might be from the categories above? I finally found them tucked away in Artistic Legacies, under an additional heading ‘World Art’ – as apposed to alien art, I imagine.

Or take Science and Technology. This theme is split into ‘Connect’ on floor one, ‘Communicate’ on floor three and ‘Shaping our World’ on floor five. Pretty straightforward, right? Well, not really. Why are Dolly the Sheep, robots, Sir Jackie Stewart’s Formula One car and a steam engine in the ‘Connect’ section? I couldn’t see the connection.

There is potential in the museum to develop further the stories about Scottish collecting. It would raise interesting questions about the origins of museums – both rooted in Enlightenment thought and, later, colonisation. And there are some fascinating objects from explorers and Scottish collectors, including Captain Cook’s clock and artefacts bought back by Robert Louis Stevenson from his travels. But these are hidden away and poorly lit, with the social context of the age of discovery and its consequences barely discussed.

What about when you get to something good – what do you learn? I asked the 10-year-old who was with me to pick an object he liked and we would find out what there is to know about it. He made for the animal gallery, which is a major improvement on the old tired displays of dead birds and polar bears. Admittedly it is a bit frantic with lots of noise and screens (hardly necessary next to a fantastic T-Rex), but it is dramatic (save for the obviously plastic animals).

He pointed at a big spider crab and said ‘That’s awesome’. And it is; the orange arthropod is a terrifying specimen with legs longer than Jerry Hall’s. We wondered just how big it was (after all, it was under a sign saying ‘Size and Scale’) and where the hell it was from. Looking around for an explanation, a sign said that they grow up to four metres in diameter. Fine, but how big is this one? It doesn’t say. Well, no matter, I guess, it’s big. Dissatisfied, my 10-year-old assistant was still desperate to know where it came from. ‘Not Scotland?’, he cried with a shudder. In search of answers, we asked a member of staff. ‘I don’t know’, she shrugged, ‘maybe the Americas?’.

We did actually want to know, however, so we left the animal gallery and went to the Info Zone on the second floor, manned by a welcoming woman who looked at an information sheet and then her computer. ‘A big spider you say? What gallery is that?’ She clicked her mouse some more and, after some time, she phoned someone, and after a few more calls someone else phoned back who finally told her the answer: ‘Japan.’ So not the Americas, then.

‘They should put a label next to the crab about it’, the 10-year-old innocently suggested. And so they should. You have to wonder why the curators didn’t think they needed to. Could it be they even underestimate children?

As galleries open to the frequent complaints of dumbing down, one excuse that is trotted out is that it’s good for kids, as if that is a good reason for incoherence and scant information. But the children I was with were in no doubt about what they thought. ‘This is meant to be the National Museum of Scotland, not the museum of kids’ stuff’, said my distinctly disapproving 12-year-old charge. The others agreed. The kids have a point.

Tiffany Jenkins is a cultural sociologist and author of Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections: The Crisis of Cultural Authority, published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK)). Visit Tiffany’s website here.

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