Leading by example

Eleanor Mills, 06.07.2016
National Museum of Scotland – where science meets art
The National Museum of Scotland was born as the Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art 150 years ago and is still in its original location on Chambers Street in the heart of Edinburgh.

As it unveils 10 revamped galleries housing more than 3,000 objects – many newly conserved and unseen for generations – on art, design, fashion science and technology, the museum remains true to its original concept in many ways.

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The new galleries, which open to the public on 8 July, have cost £14.1m to create. The spaces house a huge variety of objects – from an old-fashioned penny farthing to a mouse kidney grown from stem cells. There is even a two-tonne section of CERN’s Large Electron Positron Collider.

The treasures on show in the art, design and fashion galleries showcase the old and new. From medieval gothic treasures, and an exquisite and very wide-hipped Mantua Court dress from the 1750s, to contemporary chair and jewellery design, as well as items fresh from the catwalk at the recent London Fashion Week.

What is key, though, is how the museum has placed stories, and games, at the heart of the displays. I had a go at an interactive game about saving energy, which I was fairly hopeless at, probably because of my 30-something-year-old reflexes, but I could see how fun it could be. There’s also an interactive 3D CT-Scan of a person that you can turn around and examine from all angles, setting it to different layers of muscle, gas, bone, and more.

Another highlight is the number of videos that tell stories – there is one about tailoring a suit, another on conserving a beautiful sofa, shown next to the object itself. And there is enlightening video about how engineer and cerebral-palsy sufferer, Alex Papanikalaou, came to design the Freedom One wheelchair after a trip around the world. A nearby case houses contemporary and historic wheelchairs, and there’s a prosthetic hand you can move with a controller a couple of metres away.

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As I was on my way around, Ruth Gill, the head of public programmes at the museum, told me about how the museum consulted medics about an interactive on how to design clinical trials. Not only has the interactive impressed staff at the museum, but the medics they worked with now use it to explain the process to people about to undergo their trials. This is a great example of how museum work can be relevant to wider society.

The new displays highlight advances in art, design, technology and science, all in parallel to one another. This is particularly noticeable through the strength of its Victorian and modern collections. Marvellous working scale-models of steam engines are within shooting distance of a 3D-printed brain, robotics, racing cars, Alexander McQueen shoes to-die-for, and knockout glassware.

At the centre of all this is how science and art have always been integral to one another: the best glassblowers made vials and intricately-wound tubes for scientists, electricians and engineers in the 19th century, just as designers and artists collaborate with scientists to come up with neat aesthetic and ergonomic solutions today.

These galleries identify science and art as traditions that feed off each other. And at this fragile political time we must keep this at the front of our collective consciousness. Art and design, just as much as Stem subjects, need to be kept as equals on any future governmental agenda, and the National Museum of Scotland’s new galleries exemplify exactly why.

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