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Lighthouse lens in the Grand Gallery (1)


Discover the story of National Museums Scotland, from our 18th century beginnings to the present day.

Two strands of history come together in the story of the development of National Museums Scotland: the desire to have a museum reflecting Scottish history and the wish to have a museum demonstrating international cultures, natural and physical sciences, and decorative art for Scotland.

Beginnings: The Society of Antiquaries of Scotland

The Society of Antiquaries of Scotland was founded in 1780, very much in the spirit of the Enlightenment, to collect the archaeology of Scotland. Its collections passed into public ownership in 1851 as the original collections of the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland.

These collections, which had had various homes previously, were housed from 1891 until 1995 in specially built galleries in Finlay Buildings, Queen Street, Edinburgh (also occupied by the Scottish National Portrait Gallery). The annual proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries provide an invaluable record of research carried out on the archaeology collection, from their first publication in 1851 to the present day.

A new home

In 1985 the National Museum of Antiquities was amalgamated with the Royal Scottish Museum. The latter was founded in 1854 as the Industrial Museum of Scotland and reflected the impetus of Victorian ideals of education. It started international collecting and research as well as forming close links to the collections and teaching of Edinburgh University, which continue today. Renamed the Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art, it opened in its first bespoke buildings, designed by Francis Fowke, in Chambers Street in 1866.

The 1985 amalgamation created the National Museums of Scotland (now National Museums Scotland), the largest multi-disciplinary museum in Scotland, with 12 million items in its collections and the largest body of curatorial and conservation expertise in the country.

National Museum of Scotland

The building of the new Museum of Scotland, which opened in 1998, to tell the country’s history from earliest times to the present day, created a landmark museum in Edinburgh for the nation.

The redevelopment of the National Museum of Scotland transformed the adjacent Victorian building into a vibrant museum for the 21st century, opening up public spaces, providing new facilities and displaying our natural world, world cultures, art and design and science and technology collections in innovative new ways.

When the new galleries opened on 29 July 2011, the museum united the two strands of its history for the first time in a single entity, creating the National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street.

National Museums Scotland today

Today, National Museums Scotland also includes the National Museum of Flight, the National War Museum and the National Museum of Rural Life.

The National War Museum was founded at Edinburgh Castle in 1930 as the Scottish United Services Museum to tell the story of Scotland's Armed Forces. In 1970 it became part of the Royal Scottish Museum and in 2000, the refurbished museum reopened as the National War Museum.

In 1971, the Ministry of Defence donated a Supermarine Spitfire to the Royal Museum in Edinburgh. Due to lack of space to accommodate the aeroplane, the museum was granted permission to acquire one of the hangars of RAF East Fortune in East Lothian, as a storehouse for aeronautical exhibits. With this, the seeds were sown for the development of National Museum of Flight. The museum officially opened to the public on 7 July 1975. You can read more about the history of East Fortune Airfield.

The National Museum of Rural Life first opened in Ingliston in 1982 as the Scottish Agricultural Museum. In 2001, then called the Museum of Scottish Country Life, it relocated to Kittochside, East Kilbride.

National Museums Scotland's collections are housed principally in the National Museums Collection Centre at Granton.

In 2014 National Museums Scotland announced the third stage of its ambitious £80 million Masterplan to restore the much loved Victorian building on Chambers Street to its former grandeur and reveal the remarkable treasures of its collections. The project involved the creation of ten new galleries to showcase our Art, Design and Fashion and Science and Technology collections, which opened on 8 July 2016.

In February 2019, the transformation was completed with the opening of three new galleries. These galleries, dedicated to Ancient Egypt, East Asia and the Art of Ceramics, were the final part a 15-year journey, restoring one of the UK’s finest Victorian buildings, revealing remarkable treasures, and creating inspiring learning experiences to engage more visitors.

Directors of National Museums Scotland

1859 – 1869 William T McCulloch

1869 – 1913 Joseph Anderson

1913 – 1919 Alexander O Curle (also director of RSM 1916-1919)

1919 – 1938 John G Callander

1938 – 1944 Arthur J H.Edwards

1944 – 1945 Gordon V Childe

1946 – 1978 Robert B K Stevenson

1978 – 1985 Alexander Fenton

1985  NMAS and RSM amalgamated to form National Museums Scotland

1855 – 1859 George Wilson

1860 – 1864 Thomas C Archer

1864 – 1885 Thomas C Archer

1885 – 1900 Robert Murdoch Smith

1900 – 1903 Francis Grant Ogilvie

1903 – 1904 James J Dobbie

1904 – 1909 James J Dobbie

1909 – 1911 David J Vallance (acting)

1911 – 1916 Thomas Carlaw Martin

1916 – 1931 Alexander O Curle (also director of NMAS 1913-19)

1931 – 1934 Edwin Ward

1934 – 1944 Thomas Rowatt

1945 – 1961 Douglas A Allan

1961 – 1971 Ian Finlay

1971 – 1984 Norman Tebble

1984 – 1985 Robert Anderson

1985 – 1992 Robert Anderson

1992 – 2001 Mark Jones

2002 – 2020 Gordon Rintoul

2020 – Dr Chris Breward

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