By Ian Sansom.
YOU ENTER FROM Chambers Street via what was once presumably the basement. Or the cellar? The storage area? The catacombs? The burial chamber? Who knows. It’s underground, anyway. You descend to enter, so it feels like burrowing into the building, as if entering a bunker, a den, or a shopping mall through an underground car park.
There are exposed brick walls. Low lights. A candle-lit brasserie. Excellent disabled access. And maps in many languages. Mournful gloom, but a happy little realm: I was warmly greeted by an attendant not once, not twice, but three times. Perhaps I have a greetable face. Certainly, if this were hell, I would happily stay.
Going upstairs you enter the Grand Gallery: a vast atrium of immaculate white painted metalwork columns, beams, ribs and balustrades, topped by a shining bright glass roof. Progeny of light! You feel like Satan speeding towards Eden in Paradise Lost. Or Jonah being swallowed by the whale. The architect of this strange beast of a building was the great Francis Fowke, responsible also for the Royal Albert Hall and parts of the V & A, and the building possesses a similar grandeur, though the massive effect of light reminds one more perhaps of the Palm House at Kew rather than the endless brick and terracotta of Albertopolis. Indeed, the contrast between the subterranean entrance and the dazzling light of the Grand Gallery is so great that it made me feel quite dizzy: beware fainters falling down the stairs.
The disorientating effect continues rather with the strange assemblage of items – various tools, Buddahs, a plane, a skeleton, antlers, etcetera, etcetera – with which the walls of the Gallery are adorned, and which are, apparently, a ‘Window on the World’, the various objects, according to the museum guide (£5.99) intended to ‘act as signposts, leading and enticing the visitor to discover the breadth, depth and richness of the collections.’ To the untrained eye they appear not so much like signposts as bits of scrap, as though one had entered a curator’s shed rather than a museum.
Apart from its wall of stuff, the vast white Gallery has been cleared of almost everything except for a few benches, a marble statue of James Watt, a decorative ironwork drinking fountain, a printing press, and a lighthouse lens. On the morning of my visit the empty space was usefully filled with smart, moustached, middle-aged male attendants and eager pony-tailed young women in ‘Ask Me A ?’ T-shirts. The effect is both pleasant and familiar, like shopping in John Lewis.
[video_lightbox_youtube video_id=frl5smXnBIE&rel=0 width=640 height=390 anchor=http://fortnightlyreview.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/dollytn150.jpg]ESCHEWING THE TEMPTATIONS of both the Balcony café and The Art of Iran I made my way dutifully towards The Kingdom of the Scots, passing through a children’s ‘Connect’ area, full of hands-on exhibits and where – unexpectedly and, indeed, utterly inexplicably – I came across Dolly, the cloned sheep, now dead, stuffed and forever rotating in a display case, illuminated by bright LEDs, looking for all the world like a doner kebab-in-waiting. The Dolly display is surrounded by a bank of hi-tech touch-screens which, presumably, explain the ins and outs of cloning to toddlers, pre-pubescents and teens. Alas, my touch screen wasn’t working.
Passing by yet another café, and an entirely random display dedicated to Sir Jackie Stewart, the Formula 1 racing driver, I eventually found the Kingdom of the Scots, which is housed in the modern wing of the building. Here, spread across several floors, lies the entire history of Scotland, all bathed in mellow light. Harry Lauder would have felt at home; alas, personally, I found the Kingdom of the Scots almost impossible to navigate. With its narrow passageways, winding staircases, alcoves, dead-ends, non-working lifts, and its vast jumble of carved oak panels, paintings, chalices, silverware, sundials, bits of pottery – and a large part of a painted barrel ceiling from the Guthrie Collegiate Church in Angus – it felt like being trapped inside an Escher print, with added art and instruments of torture. But perhaps it’s because I’m English.
I was, however, delighted to stumble across the Lewis chessmen (referred to as ‘chesspieces’) in one of the exhibition’s many odd, incidental spaces, on a narrow plinth tucked behind a harp and next to a few brooches. The chessmen are displayed at about waist height, so that one has to kneel to view them properly, and they do look rather forlorn, but they really are wonderful, tiny, charming and odd, as though ready at any moment to make a move, and worth the visit alone.
The museum – reopened only in 2011, after an almost £50 million refit and redevelopment – undoubtedly has many such allurements, including Ching Ching the giant panda, and some nice working bits of machinery, but it might most safely stake its claim as being the friendliest museum in Europe. During the course of just two hours I was approached by no fewer than five attendants – one informing me that I was free to take photographs if I so wished, though I believe I showed no apparent sign of so wishing, and another offering to explain to me the workings of a Corliss single-cylinder steam engine, though again I believe I display neither the classic look nor the obvious inclinations of an engineer. If I’d stayed much longer I’m sure someone would have invited me home for tea. Another attendant informed me that the Roof Terrace had been closed, due to the weather.
‘That’s a shame,’ I said.
‘Yes,’ she agreed. ‘Everyone says it’s the best part of the museum.’
She had no idea: she was the best part of the museum.
Ian Sansom is the author of several books, including The Bad Book Affair (UK) and other titles in the Mobile Library Mystery series. His most recent book is Paper: An Elegy (UK), which was launched in October 2012 at The Paper Museum. He teaches in the Writing Program at the University of Warwick, writes frequently for The Guardian and the London Review of Books, and is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review.