Travels with Tim and Lisa

"If my discoveries are other people's commonplaces I cannot help it – for me they retain a momentous freshness" (Elizabeth Bowen)

Edinburgh Museums, 5.10.05

Posted by Lisa Hill on January 22, 2006

 Things improved on our second day in Edinburgh. We began with a lucky accident – the discovery of the National Library of Scotland’s fascinating exhibition to commemorate the 60th anniversary of VE Day: ‘Scotland’s Secret War’. I hadn’t known much about the bombing of Scotland, which was extensive in the shipbuilding areas, and especially at Leith, Glasgow and Clydebank. Edinburgh was largely spared, and the library played an important role in storing significant manuscripts and documents. There was a display about spies such as the Tartan Pimpernel (Donald Caskie) who helped soldiers to escape from France and Norway, and another about how Robert Watson-Watt helped to discover radar for the wartime defence of Britain. Then there was the story of how the Scots Home Guard captured Rupert Hess on his secret trip to Britain, and also on display, an Enigma Machine.

After that, we went to the New Museum of Scotland and took a brief tour. It’s in a new purpose-built building, linked to the old museum by lifts and galleries, and the tour itself was an introduction to the (often nationalist) symbolism of the interior features. The building, for example, is designed in the shape of a ship as an echo of Scotland’s industrial past.  There were some strange metal architectural scuptures showing the themes of the museum: community, trade, power and the spirit. They looked like massive robots with humanoid faces, but they also had items from the collection – such as a bracelet from 800AD or an ancient coin – enclosed in little display boxes attached as an integral part of their bodies. I liked them, but I have to admit they’d probably be incomprehensible if the guide hadn’t explained their significance.
From there we went up to the trade section, where we saw an assortment of huge machines and lots of bank notes – because the Scots pioneered the finance industry. After a restorative coffee and shortbread in a lovely light-filled cafe, we went to see the special exhibit, Nicholas and Alexandra, The Last Tsar and Tsarina.  There were some lovely things, including a 1999 Faberge copy of the imperial regalia, although not much that is precious had left the Russian museums on tour! I liked the menus and the vestments, though most of the dresses looked ornate but not especially valuable.
 What I thought was most interesting was their interpretation of how it all came to an end. According to the display, the Russians were at war with Japan, and things were not going well. Tsar Nicholas took over as Commander-in-Chief, not because he knew anything about things military but for morale purposes. (Not surprisingly) he made things worse, and they lost, and then WW1 started. The Red Bolsheviks were against the White Russians who wanted to use the Imperial Family for support, and so the Reds bumped them off to prevent them being used as a symbol, ending 300 years of Romanov rule. Perhaps if the Tsar had been a bit more willing to make changes the family might have survived, but there had been two attempts at having a Duma (parliament) and neither survived because Nicholas thought them too revolutionary. Ironic, eh? Nicholas abdicated in 1917 but he and Alexandra, their five children and servants were executed and their bodies buried in the woods. There they remained until five of the bodies were found and reburied in 1998 after the fall of the Communists.  After that we explored some more of the museum, the highlight of which was the fossils – brilliant! I bought a reproduction of a Faberge peacock as a memento before a superb lunch in an excellent French restaurant Le Sept , before we set off for The Edinburgh Tour, prebooked before we left home…

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