Aristocrats and the middle classes promoted the development of museums as a way of expressing their devotion to their country and their commitment to the Enlightenment. Democratic in nature; Scotland’s national museums were open to all; but until the mid twentieth century their displays were; on the whole; for connoisseurs and experts. Fine arts were promoted in the mid nineteenth century as part of a drive to improve design in trade and industry through the Industrial Museum of Scotland; established by Act of Parliament in 1855; opened in 1862; renamed the Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art in 1864 and then renamed again the Royal Scottish Museum in 1904. Unlike the Museum of Antiquities; this was a government driven project; inspired in part by the Great Exhibition; the Crystal Palace (which was imitated in the Museum’s architecture) and the South Kensington museum complex. It is not surprising that in the past Scotland compared her museums with those in London and sought to emulate them; for many politicians and industrialists moved easily between the two capitals and had influence in both. National museums in Scotland were about supporting Scottish identity and pride within the United Kingdom. Devolution in 1998; (coinciding as it did with the opening of a national Museum of Scotland); has led to greater demands for Scottish independence and the National Museum of Scotland has become a symbol of growing national confidence. The Museum presents the Scots as a great nation whether they are inside the Union as now or; in the distant past; outside it. The 1998 Museum of Scotland is sometimes referred to the National Museum of Scotland. To avoid confusion; as the new amalgamation of the Royal Scottish Museum with the Museum of Scotland has led to both museums being united under a title of National Museum of Scotland; the 1998 Museum of Scotland is not referred to as the National Museum of Scotland in this paper. Occasionally it is described as ‘national’ without the capital letter that would denote an official title.
Scottish exceptionalism has a long history and can be found in the archaeological collections and displays of the National Museum of Antiquities in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It subscribes to an idea that the Scots are different ethnically and culturally from their southern neighbours. While current museums do not advocate racial Scottishness; relationships with overseas visitors of Scottish origin are fostered. Museums continue to play a role in civic nation building by demonstrating the importance and effectiveness of the Scots in a wider Britain and their contribution to the United Kingdom as a whole; while reminding them that they were independent in the past and; by implication; could be so again in the future. The ase studies include the National Museum of Scotland; the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery.
The origins of the first national museum of Scotland can be found in the establishment of the Museum of Antiquities of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1780 by David Steuart Erskine; Earl of Buchan. It was one of several museums founded around this time in the United Kingdom in part as a consequence of the Enlightenment and the desire to order and regulate knowledge. Its collections passed into public ownership in 1858 and it became the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland. Erskine’s aim was; within that framework of the Union; to celebrate Scotland’s distinctiveness. The foundation took place during a time of Celtic revival; a romantic yearning for ancient cultural practices located in a time beyond history; linked to ideas about an ethnic identity rooted in folk practices. The museum had a key role in promoting the idea of the Scots as a nation; ethnically and culturally separate from the rest of the UK and Europe. By 1879; Dr Joseph Anderson; the Keeper of the National Museum of Antiquities between 1869 and 1913; argued that archaeology demonstrated the unique nature of the Scottish people. It did no such thing but his influence was felt well into the mid twentieth century in the museum and in the public imagination. There is little or no evidence that politicians promoted this sense of Scottish exceptionalism. The National Museum of Antiquities’ staff had a similar level of independence to those of their colleagues in London national museums. They decided what to display and what stories to tell.
The Royal Scottish Museum was founded in 1854 by the British government and was the responsibility of the Department of Science and Art. It was first called the Industrial Museum of Scotland (and only renamed in 1904); and was intended to focus on natural history; geology; science and technology as well the decorative arts. It was created in response to the example of the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London; an exhibition that encapsulated the mid nineteenth century’s interest in industrial design and inventions and the desire to promote high quality manufacturing.
In 1985; these two national institutions; the Royal Scottish Museum and the National Museum of Antiquities; amalgamated to create the National Museums of Scotland (rebranded as National Museums Scotland in 2006). A new national Museum of Scotland was opened in 1998 to tell the story of Scotland. It had been long in the making and was motivated as much by practical considerations as political ones. However its opening coincided with devolution and it is now funded directly by the devolved Scottish parliament. Its relationship with the rise of Scottish nationalism and demands from some quarters for independence from London is complex. It is difficult to disentangle to what extent its existence helped to drive forward a national agenda and to what extent it responded to it. Nevertheless; it contributes to the idea of the distinctiveness of Scotland over time. There is also some evidence that curatorial staff were encouraged by political interest to develop a more nationalistic story than they originally intended (see essays in ed. Fladmark 2000). The second phase of this scheme; the refurbishment of the Victorian building of the Royal Scottish Museum; opened in July 2011. The two buildings are now interlinked and come under one name; the National Museum of Scotland.
The National Gallery of Scotland opened in 1859 but its origins date back to several institutions established in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to encourage good design and fine art in Scotland by providing students with old masters to copy. It was a government initiative under the Board of Manufactures. We see in Scotland something similar to that in England. Artists developed their own Academy; supported by aristocratic and wealthy middle class collectors. The Academy’s collection of old masters and Scottish artists was very much a teaching collection and art was for training as much as for appreciation. At the same time; towards the middle of the nineteenth century; inspired by developments in London; wealthy; educated and aristocratic Scots began to aspire to a kind of National Gallery; and this was developed from the Institution for the Encouragement of Fine Arts in Scotland (founded in 1819; with a Royal Charter in 1857); along with collections from the Society of Antiquaries. All these collections were housed in the same building on the Mound in Edinburgh and the Institution’s collections that related to art were curated by part time Academicians until the appointment of the first full time director; J.L. Caw (1864–1950) in 1907.
The National Portrait Gallery was intended right from the start as ‘the highest incentive to true patriotism’ (Anon cited Clifford 1989: 11). It shared a site with the National Museum of Antiquities. Founded in 1882 the Gallery sought to tell the history of the nation through portraiture and imitated the London National Portrait Gallery.
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