On the top floor of the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, a makeshift installation depot is a hive of activity.
Adjacent to the lofty Grand Gallery, in 2018 it will house the museum’s Ancient Egypt and East Asian collections. Today, behind the scenes, it is a processing space for more than 3,000 objects which will go on display in ten new galleries – exploring science, technology, applied art, fashion and design – opening on Friday.
Objects ranging from ornate furniture and ceramics to bicycles and scientific equipment are carefully packaged and stored on shelves, awaiting their moment in the spotlight. A team of conservators are busy mounting an 18th century dress on to a mannequin, arranging its wide skirts just so. A red telephone booth is wheeled out, on its way to the Communicate gallery, where it will be displayed alongside a range of objects exploring the impact of developments in communications technology. In a studio in the corner of the gallery, a photographer documents another dress; a daring 1960s chainmail number by Paco Rabanne. Each object is being photographed for posterity before going on display.
About three-quarters of these objects have not been displayed for generations, if at all. Some are new acquisitions; some have been stored in the National Museums Collection Centre in Granton. So what does it take to get more than 3,000 objects – ranging in size from a mouse’s kidney to wings from an aircraft used by the Red Arrows – ready for their close-up?
“Getting each and every object ready for display has been a hugely varied project,” says Xerxes Mazda, director of collections at National Museums Scotland (NMS). “Work has ranged from cleaning opulent silver-gilt pieces to hoisting five aircraft into the atrium of our Science and Technology galleries. It’s been a fascinating challenge for the team to decide how objects should be displayed and just what conservation work each one requires.”
Museum staff had plenty of puzzles to solve to get the galleries ready. A section of the floor of the Enquire gallery, for example, had to be reinforced to support a two-tonne copper accelerating cavity from CERN’s Large Electron Positron collider, predecessor of the Large Hadron Collider.
Working scale models of engines, built by museum staff in the 19th century, have been brought back to life by engineering conservators. Come Friday, visitors will again be able to press the red button and watch them go.
The Art of Living gallery features an entire wall and fireplace from a drawing room at Hamilton Palace. The seven-metre-long section dates from the 1690s and was removed from the palace – once the greatest treasure house in Scotland – in 1927, shortly before the building was demolished. It was dismantled and shipped to New York where it was purchased by the American newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, who never had the wall reassembled. It was passed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York before coming to NMS in the 1990s, arriving in nearly 100 pieces packed into 13 crates which had not been opened for 80 years.
“I’m afraid the Hamilton Palace Wall didn’t arrive with any Ikea-esque instructions, so our conservators embarked on a journey to understand how to piece it together,” says Mazda. “Along the way, the tree rings in the wood were analysed to help date it and x-rayed to gain a greater understanding of its story. Our new galleries have offered us the opportunity to reveal the stories of some of these fascinating objects through the conservation work we’ve carried out in preparation for their display.”
In some cases, researching the history of an object has helped to inform how it is conserved. Mazda points to the Hawk glider, Britain’s oldest aircraft. Made of bamboo and fabric and weighing just 22kg, it’s hard to imagine anyone getting airborne in it, but it was successfully flown by its creator, Percy Pilcher. He died in it when it crashed in 1899. Conservators delved into its history to understand which parts were original and which were alterations made during previous restorations. “The glider was damaged in the 1899 crash and sustained further injury in 1911 when the building it was housed in was wrecked during a storm,” says Mazda. “Furthermore, areas of deterioration included dirty sails which were positioned wrongly, corroded wires and broken bamboo.”
Following 18 months of conservation work, it has new sails and has taken to the skies once again, hovering above the Science and Technology galleries.
The museum’s conservation team consists of experts covering a range of disciplines, including paper, engineering, furniture, artefacts, aircraft and textiles. However, their work often overlaps.
The textiles team have been working on pieces for the Fashion and Style gallery (a torn flapper dress here, a damaged doublet there), but they have also had some more surprising tasks. The 1895 Holden motor bicycle – Britain’s first motorbike – was originally delivered to the engineering conservation department, but took a detour via the textiles team. Its front tyre had lost most of its rubber surface, revealing the damaged fabric layer below, which needed to be carefully stabilised; relaxing the broken fibres and sorting them back into their correct position before creating a support for them using polyethylene foam.
Back in the Art of Living gallery, the travelling service of the Emperor Napoleon’s sister, Princess Pauline Borghese, has been installed in one of a number of airtight cases. The service contains more than 100 silver-gilt items intended for washing and dressing, eating and drinking, and everything else that a lady might need when travelling. In addition to tea and coffee pots, plates and cutlery, the contents include scent bottles, combs, mirrors, toothbrushes and even a tongue scraper.
“The airtight case is designed to keep humidity and ultraviolet light levels low and to filter out air pollutants, meaning that silver on display can stay untarnished for decades,” says Mazda. “Preparing the service for its re-display has required more than 250 hours of conservation time.”
Not every one of the objects going on display has had quite that much conservation time spent on it, but each one has had an expert eye cast over it to ensure that it’s looking its best in time for opening on Friday.
One of the last objects to be installed is also one of the museum’s most iconic; Dolly the Sheep, who will take centre stage in the Science and Technology galleries, resplendent on a revolving plinth. She too has been primped and preened in preparation for opening. A cut and blow-dry? A session with the Carmen rollers? Nothing so glamorous; she spent five days in a freezer at -31C for the purposes of pest avoidance.