Poking around a National Museum

4 Jul

I spent a few hours poking around the National Museum of Scotland. It is a difficult thing to get right: National museums. They are claiming to tell a story of a nation, and thus have to carefully choose their narrative. Sometimes it can seem too nationalist and defensive. A good example here is the National Museum of Georgia in Tbilisi, with its permanent exhibition of the Soviet occupation. The evilness of the Soviet regime is undisputed, but the permanent exhibition comes across as an overly political project. Another example is the British Museum. It is an incoherent mess that is stuffed with plunder from the Empire and is unable to tell any story whatsoever. It is interesting to look at, but utterly bewildering.
The National Museum of Scotland gets it just about right. The story it tells is full of transculturalism, invasion and occupation, and international trade. Scotland does not come across as an isolated space. Instead, the story that is told is that of successive waves of influence: technological, religious, military, trade etc. This is a difficult story to tell: too much transnationalism and Scotland lacks a coherent story. It ceases to be the recognizable imaginary that is Scotland. Too much Scottishness and the territory will be portrayed as overly isolated and parochial.
The curators have got it just about right. They have largely avoided the Walter Scott ‘Scotchery’ of clichés (although there is a mannequin in full tartan in a dark corner). Even the building is a wonderful mix of the old (well, Victorian) and the modern. The story that is told is not one of glowing pride. Instead, there is a large emphasis on religion and especially its role in social control. The display of a hairshirt from the seventeenth century (to be worn as punishment for infidelity) shows how the moral horizons were enforced in the public sphere. In totality, it is a story that mixes Enlightenment with drudgery, murder and foul deeds with discovery and invention, and finely crafted artwork with the deadly functional. Well done to the curators.

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