Museum During a Crisis

Written by Dr Rachel Walcott, Principal Curator, Earth Systems, National Museums Scotland

These are strange times. As I write this (16th March 2020), the number of coronavirus or rather Covid-19 infections is rapidly increasing and I am uncertain whether our Museum, the National Museum of Scotland (NMoS), will even be open to the public this time next week. This 160 year old museum has endured two crises before – the first and second world wars. The Zeitgeist and decisions made during these episodes are described in the Director’s Reports and provide interesting food for thought.

First World War

In the early 20th century, the Royal Museum of Scotland as it was known then, was administered by the Department of Education and very much saw its role as a teaching aid, supporting schools and universities. When war broke out in July 1914, it was hoped that it would all be over quickly. However, two thirds of the teachers ended up leaving to join the war effort and the army took over many educational buildings to provide space to teach new recruits skills such as cooking and mending. Curators (called ‘officers’ at the time) were required to help the war effort too. The officer in charge of the Geology Department, Dr McLintock, was employed on munitions work in the Museum Workshop. As the war went on, the effects on the education and lives of Scotland’s youth became a source of distress for the Director.

The Museum limped on with a skeletal staff but suffered from the lack of supplies and the increase in the cost of living. Halfway through the war it became apparent that aircraft could now potentially damage specimens so in 1916 and 1917 fragile and valuable specimens were moved into the basement and cellar. The war ended in November 1918 but by then the Spanish Flu had started to make a major impact. It arrived with the returning solders via ports in Glasgow and spread rapidly across the country via the railway network. In 1918 alone it killed 14,742 people in Scotland, but strangely its impact on the Museum was not mentioned in the reports.

Second World War

Only twenty years later, tensions in Europe were mounting again. In September 1938, the annexing of Sudentenland by the Nazis caused great concern and had an immediate and detrimental effect on the attendance at the Museum. The situation was sufficiently ominous that management quietly set about making preparations to close the Museum and protect its specimens in case things became worse. In January 1939 the Keepers of each department were instructed to divide their collections into four categories;

  1. Unique objects
  2. Objects of great value
  3. Valuable objects
  4. Objects easily replaceable and objects which, although valuable, could not be removed from their positions in the building

It was decided that objects in classes A and B should be moved to safety in the country. Class C objects would be put in the cellars, and those in class D protected as thoroughly as possible but left in the halls of the Museum. The UK department of ‘Office of Works’ was responsible for the allocation of resources at the time and provided 1200 standard packing cases which formed suitable containers for the majority of specimens in categories A and B.

The Office of Works provided the Royal Museum of Scotland (now the National Museum of Scotland) 1200 packing boxes to store specimens and objects in the second world war. © National Museums Scotland.

The selection of safe refuge for specimens in classes A and B was a difficult one to make. Many buildings were considered before a selection could be made. The distance from Edinburgh had to be reasonable, the site had to be remote from railways, aerodromes and other places deemed especially liable to attack. In addition, the buildings needed to be free from damp, dry rot and other conditions likely to cause deterioration of the specimens; the fire risk had to be small, and if possible, the district remote from ‘the dangers of civil panic or disturbances’. It was not an easy decision, but a number of stately homes and castles were chosen by the early February of 1918. A month later, in March, the packing-room was selected as a “refuge” for the staff in the event of an air raid.

On Monday 21st August, the international situation became so menacing that a large proportion of the Museum’s staff was instructed to remove specimens from the galleries as unobtrusively as possible and pack the most precious treasures. This process was intensified the following week and, on Saturday 2nd September, the day after Germany invaded Poland and war broke out, the Museum was closed to the public, leaving the staff to pack up the remaining specimens as quickly as possible. On Monday 4th September the first lorry load of specimens left the Museum. By Tuesday 18th, practically all the objects in categories A and B had been placed in safety and the highly dangerous wet collection had been removed from the building.

In the end a number of buildings were chosen – Bothwick Castle, Middleton Midlothian housed the bulk of the Museum specimens and the duplicate catalogue of the National Library of Scotland. A large portion of Blackness Castle contained the natural science wet collection and Torwoodlee housed large ship models and other bulky objects. A week later the curator in charge of the rocks and minerals, Mr. A. R. Waterston, was transferred to work for the Ministry of Transport. There were other modifications made but shortly after this the staff of the Museum was reduced to a “care and maintenance” party for the remainder of the war.

Blackness Castle, near Falkirk, was one of a number of buildings that stored the Royal Museum of Scotland’s natural history specimens during the second world war. Image in public domain.

March 2020

Today the coronavirus presents an entirely different global crisis. Ironically at the National Museum of Scotland we have a temporary exhibit on called “Parasites; Battle for survival” (6th Dec 2019 – 19th April 2020). The exhibition introduces some illnesses found in tropical regions and the methods used to tackle them. Covid-19 has shown those of us here in the UK that serious contagious diseases of this nature are becoming part of our lives, and are no longer something only ‘other countries have to face’. Unlike during the aforementioned time periods, our galleries are no longer designed for a few specialists, but to entertain and inform a vast general audience. The crowds they attract are huge, with over 2,227,773 visitors to NMoS in 2018 alone. These visitors are encouraged to engage, interact with, and touch many of the exhibits – which is the last thing we need just now. Will we become a victim of our own success? Certainly the galleries are not equipped to deal with such catastrophic surface and airborne diseases. Whatever happens, this pandemic is likely to have a lasting impact on both people and displays in the entire museum sector.

At present, many museums often encourage touching specimens such as this slab of migmatite on display at the National Museum of Scotland. © National Museums Scotland.

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