The West

Treasure trove of new memories
The stunning glass atrium at the National Museum of Scotland. Picture: Andrew Baillie

You often find that your memories don't live up to the reality. Your view of the past remembered with a rose-tinted mind.

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A recent visit to my old hometown of Edinburgh lived up to and beyond my recollections, proving absence does make the heart grow fonder.

As a child, growing up in Scotland's capital, one of my favourite outings was a trip to the Royal Museum in Chambers Street. And once I had children of my own, I delighted in introducing them to the displays I had enjoyed years before.

The Victorian building has recently undergone a $70 million refit and been rebranded as the National Museum of Scotland. What was once a great place to visit is now an amazing one.

Don't be fooled into climbing the wide steps at the front of the building thinking it's the entrance. It used to be, and it is with disappointment that I get to the top of the stairs to discover that you now enter by the glass doors on ground level. The disappointment turns to amazement when I step into the impressive stone-vaulted entrance hall containing a brasserie, shop and visitor facilities that include a picnic area which is available by request.
Glass elevators carry you to the Grand Gallery, housing Britain's single largest museum installation, the Window on the World - a four-storey, 18m-high display of more than 800 objects.

Among the items on view are the jaws of a sperm whale, inscribed with what is thought to be the largest scrimshaw carving in the world; the Pembridge helm (one of only four surviving 13th-century knight's helmets, brought to Edinburgh by the artist Sir Joseph Noel Paton); a four-seater racing bicycle and gold-inlaid armour from Iran. And, on the top floor, the original interactive exhibit - working-model replica steam engines, complete with a button to press to get the wheels turning and the engines working.

For me, one of the most spectacular things about the museum has always been the building itself. The glass-domed atrium floods the Grand Gallery with light, arched windows let in even more and the intricate cast-iron balconies which run round the walls of each floor provide great viewing platforms for the exhibits, architecture and the people below.

The three-year renovation program has seen storage areas turned into galleries and there is so much to see that you'll never get round in one visit. However, you can have great fun trying.

My children love the Imagine and Patterns of Life exhibits on level one, with plenty of interactives including shadow puppetry, racing the hare against the tortoise, building your own oversized teapot and making a Chinese dragon dance. A firm favourite with all ages is the Connect gallery which gives you the opportunity to delve into the world of space travel, energy and power, genetics, robotics and transport.

Try your hand at being energy minister, send a rocket into space, make electricity and program a robot. It is also home to Dolly the Sheep, the world's first cloned mammal, created in July 1996 at the Roslin Institute just outside Edinburgh, and the Black Knight research rocket, the first of which was launched from Woomera, South Australia, in 1958. My girls could spend all day in this small area of the gallery and never get bored.

One of the most impressive improvements is the Wildlife Panorama. What was once a display of dusty old stuffed animals is now a spectacular gallery filled from top to bottom with creatures from the past and present. A 12m-long life-size cast of a T. rex peers out into the Grand Gallery, drawing you into the Natural World galleries which tell the story of Earth's formation and evolution of life. Birds, mammals and sea creatures, including a gigantic great white shark - which freaks out my husband, who has plans to try surfing back in Perth - are suspended from the ceiling, a backdrop of moving screen images giving the impression they are gliding through the air; while from the floor, gazelles clash horns and giraffes stretch their necks peering into the balcony above.

Make your way up to level five and just behind the stegosaurus skeleton you'll find Adventure Planet, another fun gallery for children. Identify animal tracks, investigate life inside a cow pat or crawl through the roots of a giant oak tree to discover the species living there. If your child is of a delicate nature, you may want to avoid the interactive camouflage game. My girls have great fun designing their own fish which swim into a virtual pond projected on the floor. They travel round with lots of other fish, only to have the foreboding shadow of a shark swim through and gobble up the one with the least effective camouflage. I must admit my six-year-old, Anya, cries a little when her first attempt is chomped, however when she realises she can make as many as she likes, she toughens up, joins the queue for another go and only the promise of an ice-cream persuades her it is time to go. While you are on level five, take a look out the windows for stunning views over the rooftops of Edinburgh's Old Town.

The views are just as stunning inside the National Museum of Scotland - hopefully giving my daughters memories to treasure just as I have.


The West Australian

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