National Museum of Scotland: transformed

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The eagerly anticipated public re-opening of the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh will finally take place tomorrow (29th July) following the completion of its most significant redevelopment in over a century.

The current £47 million redevelopment is the centrepiece of a masterplan to realise ‘a 21st Century Museum,’ and is being carried out by Glasgow based Gareth Hoskins Architects, following their appointment in 2004. The project essentially opens up and expands what is one of the finest Victorian buildings in Britain.

Designed in 1866 by the Royal Engineer Captain Francis Fowke, architect of the Albert Hall, the cast iron ‘bird cage’ structure of the Grand Gallery was inspired by London’s Crystal Palace. This dramatic, and much loved space has been reinstated as the main focal point of the Museum’s displays (minus the also much loved fish, which are now in Glasgow’s Kibble Palace). The main display of the Grand Gallery space, ‘Window on the World’, spans the building’s four storeys, showcasing objects from across the Museum’s collections.

Additionally, a new central ‘Discoveries’ gallery draws visitors through to the exhibitions and an expanded three-storey Learning Centre, which features new studios, event spaces and an upgraded auditorium. Previously concealed original archways have been opened up and a series of balconies, walkways and escalators have been instated to improve visitor circulation and provide varied views of the displays and of the building itself.

Ralph Appelbaum Associates, international interpretive planners and designers, were responsible for creating new exhibitions in its 16 new galleries, which are now home to over 8,000 objects.

Another of the main aspects of the redevelopment involved excavating and opening up the former stone-vaulted storage spaces on Chambers Street, to form a new 1,400m² Entrance Hall, accessible from street level and encompassing visitor facilities.

Below, Gareth Hoskins explains a bit more about this city landmark’s latest reinvention.

It’s been a long journey!” explains Hoskins, who won the NMS Masterplan competition back in 2004. The £70 million Masterplan brief called for the integration of the museums on Chambers Street; restoring and developing the Victorian building; and creating new public spaces and galleries. Construction work on the current phase began in 2008.

Technically the biggest challenge of this phase of the development was to essentially hold up an A grade A building up with one hand and take everything out below it, Hoskins continues.

The biggest architectural move has been to open up the basement and all the storage areas beneath, which is at the level of the street. It was a fantastic rabbit warren of ad hoc stores – aboriginal art in one, bicycles in another next to suits of armour. So, a big part of the project was to take the million or so stored objects to two new storage units in Granton. And then we were able to open up these sandstone vaults.

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New Entrance Hall. Image: © Andrew Lee

This involved holding up the whole of the incredible cast iron structure of the Victorian building. It was all propped below and we took out all the main spine walls. We then dropped the building by a metre and a half below in the Entrance Hall – which is around the size of a football pitch. It’s a huge amount of construction.

With the new entrance we were really interested in exploring the contrast between the low ceiling vaulted space with its dark and heavy atmosphere. Then you emerge from this space to the fantastic light filled cast iron bird-cage of the Grand Gallery…

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Grand Gallery

The main hall had previously become a glorified cloakroom and now the new Entrance Hall area downstairs takes all of that stuff. The Grand Gallery has now been reinstated as the focal point of the museum’s displays. It had ceased to become a gallery space even though that’s what it was originally intended to be. The fishpond had compensated for the lack of activity and objects in the space, but it’s great seeing these big objects back in place.

It was a really big worry to get this right as so many people have such strong memories of this building and a real personal connection to it. We did extensive visitor research at the beginning of the project and it was then that we learned that only 10% of visitors actually went above the ground floor. Two floors above – effectively two thirds of the museum – people weren’t actually getting to. The temporary exhibition space on the ground level had also created a bit of a blockage to many visitors.

As a result of the redevelopment we’ve now got eight thousand new exhibits and 50% more public space by opening the building up. We also created a much larger temporary exhibition space in the upper floors. This means that people visiting the main temporary exhibition can go up and through the museum, as we’ve opened up circulation routes and re-connected them through the building. We’ve even put in £9 million of fire stairs to help people filter through. From the arrival hall you can also get up to the top of the building directly via the new glass lifts.

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Window on the World

What’s nice about the whole project is that our relationship with NMS is still continuing. The masterplan is a 15-20 year plan. This £47 million phase is part of an overall £70 million project. The next important phase of the development is the public realm areas around the museum. We’re looking into the planning application for this soon.

The idea behind the public realm areas is that…here we are with a national museum and unlike many museums around the world we have no public spaces around the building. Chambers Street has become, over the years, a bit of a car park effectively. So the masterplan is looking at clearing the cars and creating an arrival space, a bigger frontage, which is all part of enabling people to move seamlessly into the building.

Part of the masterplan is also to reconnect the back – south facing facade – of the building with the university. During this phase of the redevelopment we’ve opened up the southern facade with glass doors but the intention is to open it up more in the longer term.”

The project team: Lead architects & masterplanners – Gareth Hoskins Architects; Designers – Ralph Appelbaum Associates; Construction team – Balfour Beatty; Gallery Fit-out – Beck Interiors Ltd

The £47.4 million cost of this phase of the Masterplan has been funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund (£17.8 million), the Scottish Government (£16 million), and a further £13.6 million from private sources.

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Natural World Galleries
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First Floor Balcony Cafe and Second Floor Sculpture Gallery
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Natural World Galleries
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Window on the World, an installation rising the full 18 metres and four storeys of the Grand Gallery which gives visitors a snapshot of the galleries behind, with over 800 objects from across the collections.
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T.Rex in the Animal World Galleries
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Art and Industry Galleries
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Window on the World
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NMS Main Facade: Image copyright: National Museums of Scotland
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Computer Generated Model: Gareth Hoskins Architects

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