Edinburgh objects

Half marathon notice

Visitor notice: On Sunday 4 March Cutty Sark and the museum car park will be closed for the Vitality Big Half Marathon. All other museums will be open as normal and DLR and rail links will be running. Find out about road closures

I too recently went to Edinburgh and was impressed by the reopened museum. As Katy says, the open vistas and object wall are a great introduction to the Museum's space and collections. I also enjoyed the range of approaches in the galleries, where chronology was often treated fairly loosely. There were some fairly subtle themes, for example about particular collectors, which might be missed by a large portion of visitors but which gave those with more time another level of interpretation to engage with.

Like Katy, too, I was very happy to see astronomy, timekeeping and navigation represented, with a good dose of longitude. I was so excited, in fact, that I took this rather hazy photograph. It focuses on the labels rather than the objects, but it is always nice to see the Nautical Almanac taking its place in displays!

Richard and I will be back in Edinburgh next week, for a workshop on 'Geography, Technology and Instruments of Exploration', so perhaps one of us could take a slightly more aesthetically pleasing picture then! In the mean time, here is the NMS's page on this gallery, called 'Earth in Space'.

As you will see from their site, this gallery is part of the general 'science bit', set in a room beyond the stuff-animals-and-biology bit, and distinct from the industry-and-technology and the decorative-arts bits. The blurb goes:

What is out there? Where do we fit into the Universe? People have always been fascinated by what lies beyond our planet. Technology helps us investigate these big questions. Scientists use evidence from Earth and space to understand more about the Universe and the origins of life.

And, hence, the gallery includes not only medieval to 19th-century astronomical instruments, clocks and demonstration models, but also fossils, meteorites, films and interactive displays about modern astronomy and a model of DNA.

To me it seems a shame that these objects were thus removed from their historical context. During this project, and in thinking about future longitude-themed displays, we have been considering such instruments in connection with a whole range of themes: changing manufacturing processes, a developing consumer society, maritime trade and empire to name the most obvious. It seems a shame to hide these connections and to depersonalise the objects and the knowledge they helped produce or share. Finding longitude wasn't (just) a scientific problem about knowing where we are, it was about practice, pragmatics, economics and politics.

Science and its material culture are, in fact, represented elsewhere in the museum. There are, for example, galleries on 'Art and Industry' and 'Inspired by Nature', and the Scottish galleries bring science and technology into a general account of Scotland's history. Likewise, it is good to see some historical objects brought into the 'Natural World' displays, of which the 'Earth in Space' gallery is part. However, a nagging feeling remains that there is an unnecessary divide created between (pure, objective, depersonalised) science and (human, contextualised) art, industry and culture. Or perhaps, for museums which aim to interest a whole range of groups and to create galleries that can link to aspects of the national curriculum, such divisions are unavoidable?