New look helps relaunch Museum of Edinburgh after £800k refit

The National Covenant

The National Covenant

2
Have your say

THERE is no missing it. It’s the visual equivalent of having a loud hailer thrust in your face into which the bloke who won Town Crier of the Year is yelling: “Hear ye, hear ye, big yellow building directly ahead.”

But then when you’ve got award-winning competition up the road in the shape of the Museum of Scotland and all the pomp and circumstance of Holyrood Palace down the way, if you want to be noticed, you’ve got to shout about it.

The vibrant new paint job

The vibrant new paint job

So after 80 years, the Museum of Edinburgh in the Canongate has abandoned its pared-down, neutral look, got itself all fancied up and is determined to be going places.

With its bright ochre walls and pillarbox red woodwork, it’s no longer just the sort of place you can walk past without a second glance. Or even the sort of place where a second glance leaves you none the wiser as to what lies behind its 16th-century facade.

Which is why what’s going on inside is all the more important. The museum, which has long portrayed itself as the city’s historical treasure chest, a maze of rooms crammed with iconic objects from the Capital’s past, including curiosities like Greyfriar’s Bobby’s collar and bowl and John Knox’s spectacles case, reopens tomorrow after an £800,000 revamp.

Says Edinburgh City Council’s museums manager Frank Little, it’s all been done with historical accuracy.

Frank Little

Frank Little

“People may find the outside walls rather vibrant, but they are colours that they would have been painted in the past,” he says. “Everyone thinks of history in black and white, but the truth is that many of Edinburgh’s buildings were painted all sorts of hues over the years, and ochre was a very traditional colour.

“We were determined the museum would be more animated. That it would attract the eye.”

As well as the new look, the courtyard beside the museum has also been opened up for the first time in 30 years. New seating, planting and old-fashioned lampposts have been installed.

Once inside the warren of rooms the colours of the walls are just as vibrant and the roof beams have been painted with golden transcriptions of the Latin sayings which are on the outside of the building “Today to me, tomorrow to thee”, “There is another hope of life” as well as the cries of Royal Mile tradesmen of yore: “Hot mutton pies”, “oysters and herrings, three a penny”, “razors, knives and shears to grind”.

A presentation area will screen a video vox pop of people telling why Edinburgh is important to them – but perhaps the most exciting new venture is an audio-visual experience developed in conjunction with the Registers of Scotland.

In a darkened room, a huge screen is embedded in the floor. From here you are told the story of Edinburgh in just 15 minutes.

Frank says: “Of course it’s just a way of dipping into some of Edinburgh’s history, but it’s to encourage visitors to go and learn about the rest elsewhere in the museum.”

The council bought the 18 different buildings which make up the museum in 1924 during slum clearances. The first section was opened in Huntly House in 1932, before expanding across Bakehouse Close into a pub and now backwards into Acheson House.

Up a winding staircase is the first display room – a showcase of some of the museum’s treasures. This selection has been chosen to portray Edinburgh as a city of trade, of power, of art, of pageantry, of ideas, of contrasts and of stories.

Off this room, in a tiny nook, is one of Scotland’s most famous historical items – the National Covenant, signed by Scottish noblemen to protect the Church of Scotland.

From there you enter another room which will centre on the history of the Old Town, and display curiosities, including a walking stick thrown on to the coffin of Clarinda – Robert Burns’ great love – during her funeral procession, and the melted metal from the Tron Kirk bell.

Frank says: “The revitalisation of the museum gives us more and better space in which to show the collection. But this is just phase one. We’ve got plans to revamp the rest of the museum over time too.”

Indeed, once past these first rooms, the museum reverts back to its old ways, wooden walls and cases stuffed with silver and ceramics, the drawings of James Craig and his New Town vision, and everything else you’d expect in a place dedicated to the history of Edinburgh.

“Currently we get around 50-60,000 visitors a year, we’re modestly aiming for 75,000,” says Frank. “But we are determined to be on the map. You might go the National Museum to learn about Scotland, but if you want to know about Edinburgh, this is the place to come.”

Join the festivities

THE reopening of the Museum of Edinburgh happily coincides with the city’s Festival of Museums this weekend, which will see a host of events laid on, from a Venetian masked ball to an Edwardian murder mystery.

Part of a Europe-wide celebration of museums and their benefit to society, the festival will also include an 18th century extravaganza on Sunday at the revamped High Street venue. Crocant, Collops and Codsounds will be an afternoon showcasing the music, food and costumes of Edinburgh’s age of Enlightenment.

Meanwhile at Lauriston Castle – Edinburgh’s answer to Downton Abbey – Death Over Dinner is already a sell-out event but the Saturday evening will see it host a summer masked ball inspired by those in Venice, with music from the students of the City of Edinburgh Music School.

Saturday will also be a day of creative workshops at the City Art Centre around an Enchanted Garden theme.

Lynne Halfpenny, the council’s new head of culture, says: “Our museums are a real treasure trove devoted to celebrating Edinburgh’s intriguing history.

“After last year’s excellent programme, the weekend line-up yet again offers something for all the family and it’s also the first opportunity people will have to discover the exciting changes at the Museum of Edinburgh.”

Joanne Orr, chief executive of Museums Galleries Scotland, adds: “The festival is about lighting imaginations while celebrating Scotland’s wealth of culture.”

n For more information visit www.festivalof museums.com