Ancient Egypt Rediscovered; Exploring East Asia; Art of Ceramics, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh

Simon Stephens explores three fascinating galleries that mark the culmination of an ambitious 15-year masterplan
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Simon Stephens
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National Museums Scotland first revealed plans to transform its flagship venue in Edinburgh in 2004. The aim was to spend £80m to open up new public spaces, improve facilities, restore the building and display its collections more effectively.

The project has been marked by a number of key stages: in 2006, the Royal Museum and the Museum of Scotland were united under a single name, the National Museum of Scotland (NMS); five years later, 16 new galleries were opened; and, in 2016, another 10 galleries were unveiled.

Fifteen years after it was first announced, the masterplan is now complete with the opening of three galleries: Ancient Egypt Rediscovered, Exploring East Asia and the Art of Ceramics. The first two sit next to each other at the top of the building, with the ceramics section two floors below.

Just like galleries featuring dinosaurs, Egyptology collections are almost guaranteed to be popular with visitors. NMS is hoping that people will be drawn to the top of building to see the gallery and will then explore what else is on offer there and on the floors below.

Displaying Egyptology collections effectively, despite their popularity, has some challenges. The museum’s collection allows it to explore how this civilisation developed across more than 4,000 years of history, but this is a huge time period, which visitors can find difficult to comprehend. It is hard to get your head round the fact that Cleopatra was born closer to our time than when the Great Pyramid of Giza was built.

Like many other recent galleries about ancient Egypt, NMS has tried to focus on people from all walks of Egyptian society, rather than just the elite. This is challenging in itself, as while there are some parallels with our lives today, ancient Egyptians can also seem alien to us, particularly their views on life and death and the complexity of their rituals and beliefs.

There is also the need to explain to visitors why and how all these ancient objects came to the UK. The opening of this gallery coincides with the 200th anniversary of the first ancient Egyptian objects entering NMS’s collections.

The museum has done a good job of addressing these issues and creating an accessible space that sheds light on life in ancient Egypt. Most of the gallery is presented chronologically and examines how the culture and society changed over time. A Scottish flavour is given to the displays by focusing on figures such as Alexander Henry Rhind, a Scot who was the first archaeologist to work in Egypt and a pioneer of systematic excavation and recording.

Forming connections

The adjacent Exploring East Asia gallery covers a shorter time period than Ancient Egypt Rediscovered, just 2,000 years. But the displays here have a different challenge – geography. The gallery covers a vast area – China, Japan and Korea. How do you create a coherent narrative for such a huge region? China alone is the world’s most populous country, with more than 1.4 billion people, and is one of the world’s earliest civilisations.

The aim of the gallery is to show how these countries have a common heritage and shared history of technological innovation. It aims to do this while also revealing the traditions that make each one distinct. The displays have to take a broad-brush approach, but they use decorative arts, archaeology and textiles to convincingly show the links between the history of the three countries.

Both galleries have large, visually striking objects to draw visitors in and signal where they are. For example, the figure of Weituo, a guardian of Buddhist faith and teachings, welcomes visitors to Exploring East Asia.

Although the two galleries cover different subjects, there are elements that unite the spaces. Religion, belief and worship are covered in both, including the relationship between the living and the dead. Scholarly achievements, including writing and language, are also common themes.

More broadly, both galleries take a similar approach to interpretation. They feature the kind of high-quality displays that you see at the better national museums the world over.

The surprises come from the objects on show, not from how they are displayed. The wide range of fascinating items are thoughtfully presented and look stunning. The display cases are densely packed, reflecting the current trend for getting as many objects as possible out of storage and in front of the public.

Object highlights

Highlights in Ancient Egypt Rediscovered include a coffin made for two children, which is the only double coffin that has been found in Egypt. I also enjoyed the lifelike painted portraits that came to the fore in burial practices during Roman-era Egypt. In Exploring East Asia I was particularly drawn to the kabuki woodblock prints that were popular in 18th-and 19th-century Japan.

The Art of Ceramics, despite being completed at the same time, is very different from the other two galleries. It is two floors below, in a space overlooking the Grand Gallery, which is light and airy. While it is not the most prestigious spot in the museum, located next to the cafe area, the displays are interesting.

With objects ranging from hip implants to ancient Greek vases, the gallery shows the science behind ceramics as well as the huge range of ways the material can be used. The items on display range from the functional to the beautiful.

NMS now welcomes more than 2.3 million visitors a year, three times the number recorded before the edevelopment. With such figures, it is clear that the masterplan, which NMS says has put audiences at the centre of the process, has been a success. The new galleries should consolidate the Edinburgh venue’s position as a major world museum, and one that presents its collection with a strong Scottish identity.

But it will be interesting to see what the next 15 years hold in store. Maybe now is the time for the museum to become more adventurous and bring some of the spirit of innovation and ambition that marked its recent Rip It Up temporary exhibition, which looked at Scottish pop music over the past 50 years, to the rest of the venue. This might make its appeal even broader.

Project data

  • Cost £3.6m (Ancient Egypt Rediscovered, Exploring East Asia, Art of Ceramics)
  • Main funders National Lottery Heritage Fund; Wolfson Foundation; Garfield Weston Foundation; Sir James Miller Edinburgh Trust; Negaunee Foundation
  • Architect Smith Scott Mullan Associates
  • Cost consultant Gardiner & Theobald
  • Structural engineer Will Rudd Davidson
  • Mechanical and electrical engineer EDP Consulting Engineers
  • Exhibition design ZMMA
  • Building construction and gallery fitout Beck Interiors
  • Display cases Vitrinen- und Glasbau Reier
  • Admission Free

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