Treasure trove at Museums Collections Centre

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MANGLES and clay pipes and wally dugs and chopper bikes. Flying geese and gramophones and radios and dolls’ homes. Brown wooden boxes and pantomime bling... these are a few of Edinburgh’s most treasured things.

And all – and countless more – are stored on the heaving shelves of the Museums Collections Centre, a treasure trove of historical items either made or used in Edinburgh down the centuries; artefacts which tell the stories of everyday life and ancient objects which go back to when the city was little more than a hamlet around an extinct volcano.

Nico Tyack inspects a helmet amongst the vast collection. Picture: Neil Hanna

Nico Tyack inspects a helmet amongst the vast collection. Picture: Neil Hanna

There are rows of Bakelite radios and other electronic gadgets from the white heat of the 1950s technological revolution – hairdressing salon blow-dryers which look capable of shooting an unsuspecting blue rinse to the moon, carpet sweepers, television magnifiers (a massive bifocal for placing in front of your telly), and higgledy-piggledy next to them are old shop signs, elm water pipes which used to bring water into the city, bus conductors’ ticket machines, and even old bus stop signs, proudly displaying the old-fashioned idea of fare stages, harking back to a time when there was no such thing as a flat fare to get you round Edinburgh. And let’s not forget the odd life-like waxwork model of a fisherman or housewife.

The Museums Collections Centre, at the end of Barony Street, is home to more than 100,000 objects, most gifted to the city council for its museums. It’s here that curators gain inspiration for exhibitions to be put on at the Museum of Edinburgh, the Museum of Childhood or the People’s Story. It is also where conservation work takes place on items which are broken or in need of freshening up.

Next Thursday it’s throwing open its doors – beyond its usual monthly tour – to take part in the Hidden Treasures Campaign, organised by The Collections Trust.

“It’s a wonderful place to work,” says documentation officer and history curator Nico Tyack. “The city’s collection has around 130,000 objects so there’s no way they can all be on display, so the majority is kept here, waiting for the right time to be shown again. It is mostly social 
history, what people did for a living, how they lived their lives, so the cataloguing of it all is an ongoing task.”

The Edinburgh City Coat of Arms. Picture: Neil Hanna

The Edinburgh City Coat of Arms. Picture: Neil Hanna

As soon as you step through the rather modern doors, your eyes alight on two of the most Edinburgh of Edinburgh artefacts – the original model for the Scott Monument, created by George Meikle Kemp for the competition held to select the best design to celebrate the writer’s life, and beside it a copy made from chip shop forks – minus the brown sauce stains. Not everything needs to have financial value, just be local to the city.

From there, along a short corridor, and into the temperature-controlled store room, another giant of 
Edinburgh history appears – the mechanism from St Giles’ Cathedral clock and three of its bells.

Then the treasure trove really opens up. Black bags full of archaeological soil samples are tied and covered with dust, boxes hold beautiful illustrations from seed packets produced by the Edinburgh firm Smith & Ritchie, sweet wrappers, posters and other ephemera. But out on the shelves are the massive wooden televisions, the wally dugs which every decent mantelpiece used to display, and alongside these sit prototypes of ships once built in the Leith docks which show where every sheet of metal, every rivet was to be placed.

Beside these are tiny, delicate clay pipes once produced in Leith – the collection holds 2000 of them which are shaped into Queen Victoria’s head, so possibly not a big seller at the time – and bright red fireman helmets which look too heavy to have ever been on a head. Then there are shop signs such as that for Alex Ferguson Confectioners while wooden clothes hangers bear the name of their stores – J Williamson & Son, and G&H Goldston, clothiers, hatters and hosiers, both once found in Nicholson Street. There are tins of self-raising flour by John Herdman & Sons at Haymarket Mills and glass soda water fountains declaring they contain the product of William Leith & Co, mineral water manufacturers.

There’s a leather-bound shopping list book for Patrick Thomson’s of North Bridge and a paper carrier bag from Forsyth’s, once of Princes Street.

Further in and there’s a rack of clothing from old pantos at the King’s Theatre, some no doubt stained with the sweat of such stage greats as Stanley Baxter and Jimmy Logan. There are also two beautiful, intricate set designs for Aladdin. And right beside them a bizarre metal sign which reads: “Edinburgh Corporation Education Committee Youth Employment Office. This office is open for the purpose of 
advising boys between the ages of five and eight years about their work, further education and leisure activities. Please don’t knock, walk in.”

“The collection really started in the 1860s,” says Nico. “The City Chambers had the first council museum and it’s grown from then. We get a lot of people donating items, or if they’re clearing out the house of a family member who has died, they will bring a lot of things here. But we only keep things that have a real Edinburgh connection. If they’re more national we’ll pass them to the national museum.

“But that’s why it’s so eclectic. We’ve everything from pieces of the original ceiling of Huntly House, to a chair which belonged to Mary of Guise, to hundreds of dolls and doll houses, cribs and prams and the back to a drum which was played at the Porteous Riot in 1736. It’s fascinating.

“We have a lot of material relating to WW1 so that will be gone through soon for an exhibition to coincide with the anniversary of that event next year. What’s so great is every object has a story, so the history of the city and its people is preserved.”

Collections manager David Patterson says: “Tours of the store are limited but we do try and ensure those with special interest can come. Being part of Hidden Treasures is important for that reason. The staff are so knowledgeable about everything that they can bring the objects to life, be it a cannon ball or a hairdryer or a piece of equipment that belongs to a long gone trade or even just one of the first personal computers.”

For more information on tours of the Museum Collections Centre or Hidden Treasures events call 0131 556 9536.