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The National Museum of Scotland

Home > Edinburgh > Exhibitions | Family | Free | Museums
by Lindsay Law (subscribe)
I'm a working mum writing about life in Edinburgh (and anywhere else we go) with two curious, adventurous, and imaginative children. Visit my blog at Follow me on Twitter: @LinzerLaw
Published October 19th 2012
A great family day out at the National Museum
The National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street has a long and dignified history. There's been a museum on this site since 1780. It's most recent redevelopment was in 2011.

There are two distinct building styles to the National Museum. They were formerly two separate museums, but they've been fully integrated into each other as one museum, while still retaining their distinctive architecture.

The first is a striking Victorian building, the exterior of which was designed in a Venetian Renaissance style, and the interior of which was designed in the style of Crystal Palace. The interior is a light-flooded hall with galleries up either side.

The Grand Gallery
A view of the Grand Gallery in the National Museum of Scotland.

The second was a controversial addition in the late 90s, which has come to be a familiar part of the city. I love this part. It's modern and geometric, but also has echoes of crenellated castles and brochs. It is traditional Scottish defensive architecture reimagined in golden Moray sandstone.

I could wander round the building marvelling at the architecture alone, but of course, there is much more to the museum than the building.

Golden Moray Sandstone of the National Museum
The golden moray sandstone of the new addition to the National Museum of Scotland. When I uploaded this to my computer, I wasn't sure whether I had rotated it correctly. It looks a little like an Escher picture.

The museum is split into themed sections, which cross over separate floors. There are over 20,000 objects, displayed in 36 galleries grouped in five main collection themes. Throughout all the galleries there are clear and concise information panels, and activities for children to try out, including dressing-up games, a particular favourite with many children (and adults too).

Natural World
Includes the ever-popular gallery of stuffed animals, fossils and bones, a particular highlight being the T-Rex skeleton. This also includes the evolution of the geology of the earth and outer space. Galleries in this area include Survival, Animal Senses, and Restless Earth.

A diorama from one of the galleries in the Natural World section of the National Museum of Scotland.

World Cultures
These galleries reveal how indigenous people around the globe live their lives and express themselves through music, art and performance. Many of the remarkable objects on display has been collected by Scottish explorers and entrepreneurs. The galleries in this area include Looking East, Facing the Sea, and Artistic Legacies.

World Cultures
A view from above of one of the World Culture galleries in the National Museum of Scotland.

Art and Design
These galleries have a truly eclectic mix of objects on display, crossing the centuries from the coffin of an Egyptian queen in the Ancient Egypt gallery to the arts and crafts movement which sprang up after the Industrial Revolution.

A statue in the Art and Design galleries of the National Museum of Scotland

Science and Technology
These galleries allow the visitor to investigate human-driven progress in communications, transport, scientific instruments, industry and engineering. Each of the galleries has fun activities from displays that illustrate the power of friction using two different kinds of train to the Communicate! gallery where you can talk to each other through huge coloured tubes, operating a primitive switchboard. Although my children enjoy the whole museum, this is the theme in which they spend the most time.

Somewhere at the other end of these tubes there is another little girl shouting as loud as she can as she explores a rudimentary switchboard in the Connect! gallery of the National Museum of Scotland.

These galleries cross all nine floors of the museum as one follows the history of Scotland from its earliest people to the diaspora of Scottish people and culture across the world. The galleries include the geological Beginnings right through to Scotland: A Changing Nation. The most unexpected galleries caught my daughters' interest, including a life-size model of a thatched house and a huge loom.

Two statues from Scotland's independent history flank an introduction to its industrial past.

As well as the five main themes, there are some other areas of interest in the museum.

Discoveries is related to the Scotland theme but focuses on the inventions and discoveries made by Scots who were innovators and inventors, diplomats and military leaders, adventurers and the celebrities of their time. By far the most popular exhibit in this section is the Millennium Clock, which provides a macabre and mysterious display on the hour, every hour.

Millennium Clock
This macabre clock illustrates the inevitability of death, as the passage of time marches on.

Learning and Information
There's a three-storey Learning Centre which has educational activities for all ages, seven days a week. The Learning and Information area includes a Research Library on Level 3, as well as an Infozone for younger readers on Level 3 back in the Grand Gallery. This was a popular area with my daughters.

The Information Zone
The children are finding out more about the artefacts and their associated history.

Grand Gallery
The light-filled space makes an ideal backdrop to display dramatic objects like the Inchkeith Lighthouse Optic and a wrought-iron fountain. In total there are 850 different objects displayed in the Window on the World which line the walls of the Grand Gallery.

Entrance Hall
The Entrance Hall is one of the newest additions to the Museum. It was part of the new layout added during the most recent refurbishment. It houses an information desk, a shop, the Museum Brasserie, and a special area for eating packed lunches. As with the rest of the museum there are more interesting objects on open display.

Roof Terrace
At the very top of the museum there is a roof terrace with outstanding views of the city. The lifts take a very long time to make their way up and down the building, but don't be put off, the views are worth the wait.

The Roof Terrace
A view of Edinburgh Castle from the Roof Terrace of the National Museum of Scotland.

Scattered throughout the museum are shops, cafes and information points. The museum is quite vast and deserves a whole afternoon, or better still two, for you to fully explore what's on display.

Most of the museum is free, but there are occasionally curated exhibitions. However, these are completely optional, and you could happily spend a completely free day here, especially if you have brought your own packed lunch.
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Why? A huge museum with so much to see and do
Phone: 0300 123 6789
Where: National Museum of Scotland Chambers Street Edinburgh EH1 1JF
Cost: Free
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