National Museum of Scotland’s £80 million, 15-year refurbishment fully realised today

Three new galleries opened at the National Museum of Scotland today (Friday).

By Julie Currie
Friday, 8th February 2019, 11:02 am
Updated Saturday, 9th February 2019, 12:38 am
Man with a vision...Dr Gordon Rintoul has overseen the transformation of the museum in the last 15 years and is delighted that it is now the biggest and most visited attraction in the UK, outside of London. (Pic: National Museum of Scotland)
Man with a vision...Dr Gordon Rintoul has overseen the transformation of the museum in the last 15 years and is delighted that it is now the biggest and most visited attraction in the UK, outside of London. (Pic: National Museum of Scotland)

It marks the end – on time and on budget – of an £80 million, 15-year long refurbishment project.

Spearheaded by Dr Gordon Rintoul, director of National Museums Scotland, the aim was to display more of the 12 million treasures in the national collections.

When Gordon took up the post in 2002, it was just four years after a new wing had been added to the Victorian building in Edinburgh’s Chambers Street.

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Grand gallery...the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh offers something for all ages, be they five or 95 years old. And these days visitors venture much further than the ground floor.

While the wing, telling Scotland’s history from earliest times to the present, was a hit with visitors it also threw the rest of the building into sharp focus.

Gordon explained: “It struck me that, while we had this terrific new building, the original museum was looking a bit tired.

“We really needed to do something to bring the old museum up to date.

“But rather than jumping in to do a little development here and there, we decided to look at the bigger picture.”

Today, the £80 million refurbishment programme was fully realised when the final three galleries opened. Assistant conservator Bethan Bryan adds the finishing touches to one of the many incredible exhibits on display. (Pic: Stewart Attwood)

After speaking to staff and visitors, and discovering they were confused about what story the museum was trying to tell, a masterplan was devised for its future.

Gordon said: “The diversity of our collections and the architecture of the building is what made the museum so unique.

“We were the only national museum globally which could tell the story of the world, all under one roof.

“In Paris or London, you’d have to visit several museums to view everything we had here.

Discovering history...conservator Charles Stable works on an ancient Egyptian mummy mask. (Pic: Stewart Attwood)

“But we did a survey that showed only 10 per cent of visitors went above the ground floor and only five per cent above the second.

“So the masterplan included stairs, lifts and escalators to make it easier for people to get around.

“There had been a lot of changes in the building since 1866 and many of the original architectural features had also, sadly, been buried under modern additions.

“The whole building needed to be renovated and restored to its original glory.”

With funding from the Scottish Government, Heritage Lottery Fund, a host of charitable trusts and individual donations, the £80 million, three-phase project got under way in 2004.

On July 29, 2011, the first phase was unveiled – 16 new galleries showcasing more than 8000 treasures, as well as a new three-storey learning centre.

The second phase opened on July 8, 2016, marking the 150th anniversary of the original opening of the building with 10 new state-of-the-art galleries.

This provided 40 per cent more space for science and technology, decorative art and fashion and design collections. Some 3000 objects were displayed, with more than 150 interactive exhibits to help visitors explore our past, present and potential futures.

Today, the final phase was revealed with three permanent new galleries officially opened, exploring Egypt, Asia and ceramics.

But how has the building evolved to provide so much more exhibition space?

Gordon explained: “We have 12 million items in our collections, a chunk of which were stored behind the scenes at the museum.

“So we moved all of those items into a new storage area a few miles away and used the space for new galleries.

“Huge old archways which had been bricked up were also opened to make it easier for people to move around.

“I’m hugely proud of the job the team have done and their continued enthusiasm for the project.

“The response from the public has been particularly encouraging too.

“Before we started, the museum was already popular – attracting 700,000 visitors each year.

“Last year, we had just under 2.5 million visitors. That’s an enormous vote of confidence from the public.

“The National Museum of Scotland is now the biggest and most visited attraction in the UK, outside of London.

“Far more people have visited, and continue to do so in increasing numbers, than we would ever have dreamt.

“Inspiring, enthusing and educating the public is what we’re all about – and they have responded to that.

“Whether visitors are aged five or 95, they will find something interesting to see or do here.

“We’ve achieved our aim of telling the history of the world, under one roof.

“It was not done on our own behalf though; it was for the public. So we’re delighted at their response.”

While the refurbishment is now at an end, the museum will continue to move with the times.

“All of the new galleries are permanent, in terms of their layout,” said Gordon.

“But they can be updated from time to time.

“We can only ever show a fraction of the national collections here.

“But if we rotate items, people will get a chance to see more of the collections than ever before.

“We also have more than 300 interactive exhibits across the museum and opportunities for people to delve more deeply into particular subjects.”

The new galleries opening today is a historic moment for all involved.

Gordon added: “We had an opportunity to transform the museum and make it fit for the 21st century.

“I believe we’ve achieved that and our visitor numbers prove the path we followed was a good one.”

Touring exhibitions add to visitor experience

The National Museum of Scotland is open year-round to enthrall both Scots and visitors from further afield.

And its changing exhibition spaces promise something new, no matter when you pop in.

Robots is currently pulling in the crowds. Exploring 500 years of humanity’s quest to re-imagine ourselves as machines, it features a unique collection of more than 100 robots.

Looking at five different time periods, it covers everything from the earliest automata to those in science fiction and modern-day research labs.

Robots runs until May 5 and costs £10 for adults (£8 concs), with under 16s free.

Embroidered Stories: Scottish Samplers will also continue until April 21. Admission free.

Other 2019 highlights include:-

The Art of African Metalwork from February 8 to August 25, admission free; Microscopes: Nature Revealed, from March 29 to September 15, also free;

Body Beautiful: Diversity on the Catwalk, from May 23 to October 20, admission free; Wild and Majestic, Romantic Visions of Scotland, from June 26 to November 10, price TBC; and Parasites: Battle for Survival, from December 6 to April 19, 2020, admission free.

To find out more about these exhibitions, visit the website