It is hard for us to imagine today quite how our Victorian forebearers saw the world.
They must have felt a deep sense of wonder with every despatch that returned to these shores – often months, or even years, in the delivery – from those great Scottish explorers David Livingston, John Rae and Captain Scott of the Antarctic. It was the age of the Great Exhibition, held in the purpose-built Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, in which many of the exhibits that later formed the basis of the famous V & A collection were first shown to the public.
It is also when the Chambers Street museum first opened its doors to the curious Edinburgh public.
Stepping through the doors of the museum today you can still get some sense of the awe that the very first visitors must have felt. The museum has always been a firm favourite of course, but its ongoing £80 million revamp has been an absolute triumph.
The latest stage in its transformation opened yesterday with ten new galleries featuring more than 3000 objects and more than 150 interactive displays. There you can see everything from Emperor Napolean’s tea service to Britain’s oldest aircraft, a 17th century palace wall and fireplace once shipped across the Atlantic by William Randoplh Hearst to the country’s first motorbike.
The museum has deliberately set out to recreate the “walls of wonder” at which the Victorians would marvel. You see so many amazing exhibits in one place, and such a bewildering variety, that it is impossible not to stop and wonder at the world around us.
The term world-class is bandied around fairly lightly at times – just think of the football commentators on television – but in the case of the National Museum it is undoubtedly true. We ought to be proud of what is surely one of the best free visitor attractions in the world. And we ought to enjoy it. The only problem might be battling through the crowds.