Great Scot!

Scotland’s historic contributions to science have been far greater than the country’s size might suggest.

By Benjamin Gross | May 11, 2013
Main Hall - National Museum of Scotland

Main hall, National Museum of Scotland.

National Museum of Scotland
Chambers Street, EH1 1JF
Edinburgh, Scotland

In 2014 the Scots will vote on whether their nation will part ways with the United Kingdom. More than three centuries after unification long-standing debates over local management of natural resources and defense spending have inspired Scotland’s leaders to again raise the question of independence. One institution that will be closely watching the polls is the National Museum of Scotland (NMS). Located in Edinburgh, within walking distance of the Scottish Parliament, the National Museum is dedicated to preserving the history of Scotland, including the scientific and technical achievements of its inhabitants.

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Dolly, the first mammal cloned from an adult somatic cell, on display at the National Museum of Scotland.

National Museums Scotland

The current building only opened to the public in 2011, but the origins of the NMS date to the 1780 formation of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. In 1985 the society’s archaeological holdings were combined with those of the Royal Scottish Museum, a Victorian-era space showcasing industrial technologies and anthropological artifacts. The mixed pedigree of the newly formed NMS makes it difficult to categorize as either a history museum or a science museum. Instead it is a wonderful hybrid, where mummies and steam engines coexist side by side and dinosaur skeletons gaze toward nearby collections of astronomical instruments.

The museum’s diversity is most evident in its Grand Gallery, an enclosed courtyard whose glass ceilings and cast-iron arches serve as reminders of NMS’s Victorian ancestry. In addition to providing the building’s architectural core the gallery also boasts the largest museum installation in the United Kingdom. Entitled “Window on the World,” the four-story-tall display houses 850 objects, ranging from Bronze Age axes to model locomotives that can be activated with the push of a button.

“Window on the World” provides guests with an effective overview of what the NMS has to offer. The museum is organized into five sections—Natural World, World Cultures, Art and Design, Science and Technology, and Scotland—each of which is subdivided across three or more floors. The first floor of the Natural World gallery, for example, uses an impressive array of preserved wildlife specimens to show how species adapt to their environments; one noteworthy diorama explains animal locomotion using a race among a tiger, kangaroo, deer, and python. The second floor highlights differences between human and animal senses, while the third features endangered and extinct species.

The section explicitly devoted to science and technology shares a similar tripartite arrangement. The “Connect!” exhibit on the first floor is aimed at younger visitors, juxtaposing hands-on demonstrations with historically significant artifacts, including a Watt steam engine and a revolving display containing the body of Dolly the sheep. Dolly, the first mammal cloned from an adult cell, was born outside Edinburgh in 1996. Directly above this arrangement is a gallery devoted to communication technologies, containing models of Scottish-born inventor Alexander Graham Bell’s early telephone transmitters alongside a 20th-century electromechanical switchboard. Ascending one more flight of stairs leads to a section devoted to changing understandings of the natural world; objects featured include laboratory equipment that belonged to Scottish physicists David Brewster and William Nicol, as well as one of the first commercially available cloud chambers, which enabled scientists to track the trajectories of subatomic particles.

Although the museum’s other three galleries are not explicitly related to the sciences, sharp-eyed visitors will uncover hidden gems related to the histories of chemistry, physics, and engineering. For instance, the Art and Design gallery shows how manufacturing techniques—including molding, casting, engraving—used to produce cutlery, porcelain, and jewelry depended on the physical properties of the materials involved. Similarly, the Scotland gallery calls attention to the dyes and fibers used in the local textile industry as well as the architects responsible for designing the country’s many bridges and lighthouses. And after wandering back into the Grand Gallery, one can stroll through a final “Discoveries” hall containing glassware used by 18th-century chemist Joseph Black, a penicillin specimen donated by Alexander Fleming, and one of the world’s oldest color-television sets, based on the research of Scottish inventor John Logie Baird.

In its present form NMS is a relative newcomer to the museum world. The curators have done an effective job organizing its vast holdings into a series of thematically coherent exhibits, though visitors will still find a map helpful in navigating the different sections of each gallery. Even though the Scots must wait another year before voting on independence, the NMS has already succeeded in demonstrating its nation’s many contributions to science and engineering, from the Industrial Revolution to the Information Age.