Like many folks who grew up in or around Edinburgh, the National Museum of Scotland has a special place in my heart. My earliest memories of the museum are of me running around the various galleries with my Dad, and feeling as pleased as punch when he let me buy some rocks from the gift shop.
I might be a bit older now, but I still love wandering around the museum whenever I have a free day and treating myself to the odd trinket or two!
The museum is split into two parts: the original, Victorian Royal Museum building and the fairly recently completed modern Museum of Scotland building. The Royal Museum has exhibits from all over the world, while the Museum of Scotland focuses purely on Scotland’s story.
In short, the Royal Museum brings “The World to Scotland“, while the Museum of Scotland showcases “Scotland to the World“. It’s a huge complex, so let me give you the whistle-stop tour of one of my favourite places in the city!
The Grand Gallery and Entrance Hall
This used to be the first thing you see as you entered the National Museum of Scotland – you would walk up the grand old steps outside and walk into this beautiful Victorian atrium. However, since a refurb a couple of years ago to make the museum more accessible to all (wheelchair users had to come in the back door), everyone comes in at the ground level to a cave-like entrance hall where people can meet, shop or eat before making their way around the exhibits.
If you’re new to the museum, I would highly recommend going on a free guided tour – the museum run a handful every day. There are tours in the morning which give a general overview of the museum, and more in-depth tours in the afternoon which go into detail around specific exhibits in the museum. You can find the tour schedule on the museum website.
The Royal Museum building is split into ‘stacks’, each one has three levels revolving around a surrounding theme. A couple of these stacks are closed to the public at the moment as they get refurbished, but should be open again in 2016.
The ‘Natural History’ stack can be found at the far end of the Royal Museum atrium – you’ll see the huge cast of t-rex just inside the entrance! Here you’ll find lots of models of animals and an insight into animal behaviour, with different aspects covering the three levels.
Go further inside and turn to your left to find the galleries on planet earth and outer space – one of my favourite places in the museum! Here you’ll find fascinating artefacts such as rocks and telescopes and other interesting things.
The second stack is dedicated to World Cultures. Here you’ll find traditional clothes, instruments and other artefacts from around the world. Be sure to keep an eye out for the voodoo doll, the huge totem pole that reaches up several floors, and the coffin shaped like a car! This is a really interesting part of the museum if you enjoy learning about the different ways that people live around the world.
The Millennium Clock
Pretty much in the middle of the Royal Museum building you’ll find the Millennium Clock – a curious structure that chimes out to Bach on the hour. It is the work of five artists, depicting both the tragedies and hope of the twentieth century. Full of fascinating moving parts and intricate figures, this is something that definitely has to be seen in action!
It is also here that you’ll find an escalator which will take you up to the special exhibition space. This hosts unusual exhibitions which normally change every few months, covering everything from gaming to Victorian photography. It’s worth a look, but bear in mind this section usually has an entrance fee.
“Scotland to the World”
The Royal Museum Grand Gallery is connected to the Museum of Scotland with a single link at the moment, but the join between the two is marked with this incredibly clever stone which depicts the purposes of the two buildings: “The World to Scotland/ Scotland to the World.”
As you move into the Museum of Scotland, you’ll notice that the architecture is completely different. This is a thoroughly modern building which opened in 1998, although it has many features of a castle including a turret and a moat!
This building tells Scotland’s story in chronological order: starting with early Scottish people in the basement, rising up through the middle ages, the industrial revolution to the fairly present day on the top floor.
Exhibits include gold that was used by the Romans to pay off landowners to let them pass without a fuss, Bonnie Prince Charlie’s picnic set, and eleven of The Lewis Chessmen, an intricate chess set from the 12th century. If you have a bit of morbid curiosity, be sure to check out the guillotine on the first floor!
The Roof Terrace
This is probably one of the best ‘hidden gems’ in Edinburgh. The roof terrace of the National Museum of Scotland offers spectacular panoramic views across the city, and yet there are surprisingly few locals who know about it.
It’s hardly surprising, as you really have to pay attention to the signposts in the National Museum of Scotland and ascend via a fairly rickety lift (which as you can imagine, I absolutely LOVED) to get to it. Last time I was there, it was a really nice day, and yet the terrace was only occupied by a handful of tourists.
It might be slightly challenging for claustrophobics like myself to get up there, but believe me when I say it is completely worth it. The view is absolutely breathtaking and there is also lovely seasonal plants around the edge which make it a really tranquil place to be.
So, that’s the very top-level tour that barely scratches the surface of the National Museum of Scotland. The complex is so large and the exhibits are so diverse that you could very easily spend an entire day wandering around it. However, what I usually do is pop in and spend an hour or so looking at a specific bit, just so I can avoid “museum fatigue”!
In my opinion, this is an absolute must see in Edinburgh. For visitors, the collections on Scotland’s heritage are absolutely fascinating, and the changing exhibitions (some are free, some are paid) mean that there is something new for regulars to discover time and time again. I absolutely love the National Museum of Scotland, and I’m sure after your visit, you will too!
The National Museum of Scotland (website) is located on Chambers Street, EH1 1JF. You can get there from Princes Street via the Mound and George IV Bridge, just keep an eye out for the iconic round turret on the left hand side.