I used to hate it. Having grown up in Edinburgh I was in and out of the National Museum of Scotland (The Royal Museum back then) my entire life. When it reopened in 2011 following an extensive refurbishment, my first port of call were my undoubted childhood favourites, the animals and the dinosaurs. I was desperate to see how they had improved upon what an 8 year old me would have described as “un-improvable,” and I hated it.
What I found was a “Wildlife Panorama,” with everything from fish, birds, mammals and dinosaurs all displayed as part of a single exhibit in the west wing of the old Victorian building. What on earth was this? Why was the tiger no longer positioned to be pouncing towards you from around a corner, where it would scare your parents half to death? Why was the Megatherium (Giant Ground Sloth), whose terrifying size had on countless occasions kept my younger self lying awake at night, been positioned in such close proximity to an elephant and a giraffe, who forced it into dimensional insignificance? Where was the blue whale? I was blinded by nostalgia. The inner child in me hadn’t been excited by the prospect of change, he hadn’t wanted change at all.
In my stubbornness I failed to appreciate what an absolute wonder of modern exhibiting was placed before me, but not now. What I see now is a diaspora of wildlife, woven together on the floor or hung suspended from the ceiling, locked in a dramatic, never-ending chase. I see a wildlife display that is, genuinely, full of life. There are dinosaurs on show, millions and millions of years old and stripped to nothing but their time weathered bones, yet they feel as lively today as they ever presumably once were. The myriad of skeletons, taxidermy, casts and models are set firmly in place, yet this panorama exhibits an undeniable sense of motion.
In the centre, hanging amongst the birds and sea creatures are three screen projections, showing videos of many different forms of wildlife in a variety of different habitats. They are bright and colourful, and their quick editing and fast-paced action immediately draw the eye of the visitor, and transfer an illusory sense of activity onto any object peripheral to them. Beneath them, the exhibits are arranged in a non-linear series of islands, causing the visitors to swirl and swell within the ever-changing tides of the gallery floor. Meanwhile, the balconies that form the first and second floors produce a set of concentric currents as visitors circle and admire the upper reaches of the sprawling display. There is a remarkable vibrancy within the panorama; this is far from just a room filled with dead animals.
The exhibition is a truly multi-sensory experience. While it is clearly visually stunning, there is also a bounty of tangible exhibits and interactive material to engage with. On the first floor there is a feature that allows the visitor to view the panorama through the eyes of a chameleon or a dragonfly. Not only does this provide visual and tactile stimulation, but by casting the visitor in the role of an insect or reptile, they briefly afford an alternative, first-person learning experience, and these animals, too small to be featured amongst the panorama itself, are still represented in an important and worthwhile fashion.
Sound too is everywhere and the panorama is as audibly alive as it is visually. Whether it’s the crashing waves, dramatic soundtracks and intense action playing on the video screens, or the banging, clanging and programmed sound effects of the interactive interpretation, the exhibition is scored by a ceaseless melody of activity. Most importantly of all, amongst all of this is the sound of people. Children are excited and adults are locked in conversation. Everywhere there is discussion, from the simplest “wow” of amazement to deep, informed discussion, visitors are talking all the time. For me, this is the most important element of any exhibition. If you can get people talking, you are doing it right. Visitors to the wildlife Panorama at the National Museum of Scotland are talking all the time, and this is by no means idle chatter; this is engagement, in its purest, most important form.
You can lose hours in there. The moment the visitor walks in they become an archaeologist, excavating their own experience. Everywhere you look, there is something to discover. Whether you are on the ground with towering beasts above and beside you, or on a balcony peering across the chasm, through the ribs of a whale skeleton at objects glowing in a cabinet beyond, you are inclined, always, to explore. I will always hold my memories of the conventional displays of the old Royal Museum close to my heart, they are undoubtedly some of the primary reasons I have such a passion for museums today. But to say the new wildlife panorama that has replaced them is a positive change is truly an understatement. It is a breath-taking sight, and every one of those taken breaths, breathes yet more life into the exhibition. I love it.