Please Touch: A Short Account of Innovative Scottish Curation

By Stacey Wrenn

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In an age of instant gratification it is becoming increasingly difficult to satiate the needs of our miniature adults, with small screens taking over our retinas. State institutions in Scotland are beginning to work with the increased tactile and technological nature of our society, even with continuous cuts to the arts in their annual budgets, and these efforts are plainly visible when one is in Edinburgh.

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The National Museum of Scotland compiles what Ireland treats as multiple chapters into the one building, with a large atrium where people can look up and down and see the various disciplines on display – geology and the earth, natural history, costume history, national heritage. The most interactive section by far however is the tech & innovation level. Full-scale planes hang from the ceiling, racecars are stacked up against the wall. Dolly the Sheep rotates in a glass case.  

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Children are encouraged to reach out and stroke a collection of animal furs, they are not reprimanded when they colour in a fossil. Synthetic materials were on display in swatches reminiscent of those in carpet shops. When I visited over Christmas break I found it difficult to get a spot at one of the many interactive screens as families hovered around them in delight.

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The museum curators showed a real passion for what they do and avoided the conventional methods of display. One room was covered in parchment-style wallpaper with the names of all the Scottish rulers carefully painted in the finest calligraphy. The adjacent room was connected by a stone doorframe from 1627, the purpose of the object still respected.

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In comparison to the Scottish neighbours, Irish institutions pale. Beyond the cramped, metre by metre ‘Creative Corner’ hidden away in a whitewashed room, there is very little on offer for young visitors to the National Gallery of Ireland. The gallery is keen to boast about its family tours and free creative worksheets as if this is exceptional service, when this is considered the norm (and quite basic) in most European galleries.  One of the selling points of the children’s play area in the Scottish National Gallery was the large wall that was dedicated to displaying the art that they themselves made at the craft table, with various textiles and mediums available for them to experiment with. The ability to display their works together allows for space to learn from each other’s techniques and also to appreciate different ways of thinking.

Governments and society are beginning to leave behind the idea of the museum as a storage facility for the past, and embrace it as an institution that is as important to future generations as a decent school. We should use it as a facility to bring solace, inspiration, and meaning to our anxious, troubled societies. To inspire others to change what we could not.

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