Museum departments

Sarah Hiddleston By Sarah Hiddleston, Assistant Curator, Projects Working in the Science and Technology department over the years I’ve come across a number of impressive and inspiring objects. One such object that has always grabbed my attention is the model of S.S. Nerbudda. I remember on one particular day strolling through the National Museum of Scotland carrying out my weekly rounds of dusting objects, when I spied this magnificent item. It was then I felt I would like to know more about the history of this object.

Museum label 1886

Museum label 1886.

S.S. Nerbudda can be seen displayed in the Workshop of the World gallery. It is a large model at 4.2 metres in length. Built in the Museum’s model workshop in 1885, the model was described as ‘innovative’, since it was unique in size and presentation.

S.S. Nerbudda on display in the National Museum of Scotland

S.S. Nerbudda on display in the National Museum of Scotland.

“The model, which is on the large scale of half an inch to the foot, is sectional, and shows construction, fittings, and machinery of the ship in the minutest detail, in a manner probably never before attempted.” The Museum’s Annual Report 1885.

One of the ship plans provided by Wm. Denny & Brother Ltd, on which the model was based

One of the ship plans provided by Wm. Denny & Brother Ltd, on which the model was based.

The model itself was built from the original ship plans used and provided by the firm William Denny & Brothers Ltd, Leven Shipyard, Dumbarton. I decided to take a closer look at these plans, which are now in storage. Having worked in the past on a documentation project on engineering drawings and plans, I found this enabled me to get a good understanding of the detail that went into the planning and building of the model. Every part was thought about, right down to the finest detail – although the pink colour of the propeller has never been explained! Traditionally propellers were metal, so the very fact that this part was painted pink is somewhat of a mystery.

History of the ship

Researching the historical background of the ship, I discovered that the S.S. Nerbudda was a cargo ship, built for the British India Steam Navigation Company Ltd, Glasgow, in 1882. It also served as a passenger ship, with accommodation for 32 First Class passengers and 15 Second Class passengers.

S.S. Nerbudda circa 1880s

S.S. Nerbudda circa 1880s.

Nerbudda remained in service with British India until 1911, when it was sold to the company Sato Shokai Goshi Kaisha, who renamed it the Asuta Maru. Exactly why the Museum decided to create a large scale model of the Nerbudda is not clear. The ship itself was not a piece of ground-breaking engineering. Steam ships had been in operation since the early 1800s. Nonetheless, an excerpt from The Scotsman reported that the model would attract great interest from the public.

“We have no doubt that this elaborate and instructive piece will prove of the highest interest, not only to the general public, but to serious students of marine architecture and engineering.” The Scotsman, 31st December 1885.

Museum model-making

The Nerbudda model is a prime example of the detailed and skilled work that was carried out by the Museum model workshop, which built a wide array of working technological and science models from the late 1860s to the mid-1970s. Detail and accuracy were of paramount importance to the Museum model makers, their reasoning being the Museum’s ethos: to enable its audience to see up close the technological and scientific innovations created in industrial Britain. The models allowed the Museum to do this, in a way that was accessible and easy to understand for visitors. Here a quote from a letter written by Thomas Archer, the Director of the Museum from 1860-1884, illustrates the high level of accuracy required in the building of Museum models:

“I have now got the model of the S.S. “Nerbudda” so far advanced that the workmen cannot safely proceed much further without seeing some of the detail of the finishing of the decks and other portions on an actual ship, something similar to the vessel that the model represents. From the large size of the model (14 feet long) any important error will be very conspicuous. I propose accordingly, to send through to Dumbarton the two model makers who are doing the iron work, and the joiner who is doing the wood work of the model, to get some little information about these details…” Thomas Archer (Museum Director) to Messrs W. Denny & Bros, Leven Shipyard, Dumbarton, 8 Sept 1884 (National Museums Scotland Library Archive, Directors’ Correspondence – General, Letterbook 1881-1887, p. 140).

Today you can still see some of the models displayed throughout the Museum. The Museum no longer produces models but those that were previously made are maintained and now cared for by the Museum’s engineering conservation team. The history of the Museum and its workshops is currently a subject which is being revived through the research of Research Associate Geoff Swinney. Together with Dr Klaus Staubermann, Principal Curator at the Science and Technology department, Geoff has uncovered many interesting facts about the history of the Museum’s model-making practices, which can be traced back to 1868. Further to this work, the Museum plans to showcase more of the models in future exhibitions. Some of these models will be available to see in the new Science and Technology galleries, which are scheduled to open early summer 2016 and future special exhibitions.

You can see some of our working models in action here.

Andrew KitchenerBy Dr Andrew Kitchener, Principal Curator of Vertebrates

With the next phase of the redevelopment of the National Museum of Scotland, all the objects that could move are being packed up in the Connect gallery to be stored safely until they are redisplayed. Among these is Dolly the sheep, who must be quite relieved that she is no longer rotating endlessly while watching the countless visitors who come to see her and be photographed beside her every day.

Dolly the sheep

Dolly the sheep

One afternoon we gathered to carefully remove Dolly from her case onto a trolley. She was wheeled carefully through the galleries, down and up lifts, until she finally arrived in the packing area.  An Italian visitor, asking about Dolly’s whereabouts, was lucky to see her briefly on this nerve-wracking journey.  Once safely behind the scenes, she was once more photographed from every angle, scrutinised carefully for her current condition, and then finally her base was screwed and clamped into a very large wooden crate. Outside her case Dolly could be prey to clothes moths and other insect pests, so it is important we keep her sealed in this wooden haven.

Dolly the sheep being photographed

Dolly the sheep modelling for our photo-shoot

Dolly and her tightly sealed crate were transported carefully to the National Museums Collections Centre, which will be her home for the next year and a half until she is unveiled in the new Science and Technology galleries in 2016.

Dolly the sheep on the move

On the move!

Dolly the sheep in her crate

Have you got my best side..?

Dolly the sheep in her crate

Safely stored away in her wooden crate

You can find out more about the new galleries at National Museum of Scotland here.

Gemma Thorns, Assistant Conservator Technology

By Gemma Thorns, Assistant Conservator Technology

Recently the Engineering and Furniture Conservation Team undertook the exterior cleaning of three large aircraft in the grounds at the National Museum of Flight at East Fortune Airfield. This was no mean feat, as given their size they presented the conservation team with quite a challenge. The aircraft to be cleaned was the Avro Vulcan B.2A, the De Havilland Comet 4C, and the “Lothian Region” BAC111-510ED. Each of the aircraft had interesting and significant working lives before arriving at the Museum of Flight, and so it is important to keep them in good condition.

The Vulcan was the world’s first delta winged bomber when it first flew in 1952. Our Vulcan made the headlines when, due to a fractured in-flight refuelling probe, the Vulcan diverted to Rio de Janeiro. After seven days internment the aircraft and crew were released. On the nose can be seen two mission markings and a Brazilian flag commemorating her unscheduled stopover.

Vulcan being cleaned at National Museum of Flight

The Vulcan

The Comet was the first jet powered passenger airliner, the prototype first flying in July 1949. Our Comet was the last Comet to fly in commercial colours when she flew from Lasham, Hampshire to East Fortune in September 1981.

The Comet aircraft being cleaned at National Museum of Flight

The Comet

The BAC111 was a British short-range jet airliner of the 1960s and 1970s, and was one of the most successful British airliner designs, serving until a widespread retirement in the 1990s. Our “Lothian Region” BAC111 was used for the shuttle service between Edinburgh and London

The Lothian Region BAC111 being cleaned at National Museum of Flight

The “Lothian Region” BAC111

Luckily the week the team assembled on site was dry and fairly sunny, which made the cleaning much easier. Splitting into smaller teams, and with the help of volunteers, we used hoses, a power washer, mops, brushes and aviation detergent to remove the build-up of dirt, lichen and moss from the aircraft, using lifting equipment to access the higher areas. The final areas of cleaning will be carried out later in the year.

The Vulcan aircraft being cleaned at National Museum of Flight

The Vulcan

With the conservation cleaning almost complete, it is clear to see that the aircraft has greatly benefited from the work, and they can now be seen gleaming in the sunshine once again.

Peter DavidsonBy Peter Davidson, Senior Curator of Mineralogy Comets are very much in the news at the moment with the approach of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) probe “Rosetta” to the comet called 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (I know it is a bit of a mouthful so let’s call it 67P/CG for short). The hope is that Rosetta will be able to land on the comet and take sample and readings to send back to scientists on Earth. 67P/CG is a regular visitor to our part of the Solar System orbiting the Sun every 6½ years.

Comet 67P

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Image Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA.

Comets are truly one of the wonders of the Solar System. Unlike asteroids, they are not solid but composed of a mishmash of varying quantities of rock fragments, dust and ice (a comet is sometimes referred to as a “dirty snowball”) and can come in a range of sizes from a few hundred metres to tens of kilometres. Some comets are thought to originate in an area just beyond our Solar System called the Kuiper Belt, a region of cold, icy bodies, others are thought to derive from the Oort Cloud which lies even further out, beyond the Kuiper Belt. But the most distinctive feature of a comet is of course its tail. The tail isn’t there all the time and appears only as the comet approaches the Sun. The heat from our star causes the ice to vapourise and stream out from the main body carried by the solar wind. It contains not just ice, but small dust and rock particles and can stretch many millions of kilometres and is very spectacular when visible from Earth. Once the comet has passed, the tail, or rather the rock and ice particles that make up the tail, remain where they were left, and this fact is important to our story. One thing we might notice about comets is that the tail of a comet always points away from the Sun. So when the comet reappears from behind the Sun, the tail will be in front of the comet and not behind it.

Comet Hale-Bopp with its tail

Comet Hale-Bopp with its tail. Photo by NASA.

The orbit of a comet round the Sun

The orbit of a comet round the Sun. Image Hong Kong University.

One of the most famous of all comets is called Halley’s or 1P/Halley to give it its proper name (tip: the name of this comet is pronounced in one of two ways, 1) like Hal the male first name, thus hal-ley or 2. Like hall, thus hall-ley. But definitely not like hail).1P/Halley was named after the astronomer Edmond Halley who in 1705 was able to calculate the orbital period (about 74 – 75 years) of  this comet using historical records and the recently publish work on gravity by Sir Isaac Newton. 1P/Halley first appears in the historical record in 240 BC in a Chinese Chronicle but it is perhaps most famously depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry of 1066. The last visit was in 1986 and its next will be in 2061.

Sir Edmond Halley

Sir Edmond Halley.

Halley’s Comet in the Bayeux Tapestry

Halley’s Comet in the Bayeux Tapestry.

So, why are we remembering Halley’s Comet now? Let’s think back to the little fact I asked you to remember above – the bit about the tail of a comet remaining behind. Like all other comets, Halley’s leaves behind its tail in the form of a long stream of dust and rock fragments. Every year, the Earth passes through a number of these comet’s tails, in fact there are about twenty such occurrences. When we do pass through this debris field, a very spectacular event is seen which on a clear night provides one of the most amazing spectacles. This is a meteor shower. What happens is that the rock fragments and dust particles are drawn down through the Earth’s atmosphere by gravity. As they pass through the upper layers they start to burn up and produce hundreds and thousands of mini fireballs, lasting no more than a second or two. The shower continues until the Earth exits the tail and this can take a few hours. It you are lucky to see a meteor shower, one thing you will notice is that the meteors all appear to be generated from a single point called the radiant. We name the shower after the constellation where the radiant is located, thus the Leonid shower appears in the constellation Leo and the Perseid in Perseus.

Leonid Shower of 1833

Leonid Shower of 1833.

Leonid Shower of 2001

Leonid Shower of 2001. Photo by NASA.

Each of these showers is produced by the Earth passing through the tail of a comet. On October 21, the Earth will pass through the tail of Halley’s comet and we may be lucky to observe a shower on a clear night. This shower is called the Orionid and as the name suggests appears in the constellation of Orion. The next big shower after that will be the Leonids which will appear on the night/morning of November 16/17, though it may not be as spectacular as the 1833 shower. Keep watching the skies! Want to know more? You can find further information on Wikipedia and on the European Space Agency website or by visiting our Earth in Space gallery at the National Museum of Scotland. Plus don’t miss our Autumn Stargazing event at the National Museum of Rural Life and Astronomy Day at the National Museum of Flight.

Tacye PhillipsonBy Dr Tacye Phillipson, Senior Curator of Modern Science and Computing

One of the great joys of working in a museum is getting to research the specimens in our collection and realise what treasures we have. I was delighted a few months ago to notice in our catalogue Herapathite or artificial tourmaline, 1853. This perhaps needs some explanation – what is herapathite? And why was a specimen dated 1853 delighting me?

The specimen

The specimen in question

Herapathite, or iodoquinine sulphate, is the first synthetic polariser, discovered in 1852 and used by William Land in 1929 to construct the first sheet polaroid.  During the Second World War, polarising sunglasses (in the original aviator frames) were in demand as they cut the glare from the water and made it easier to spot submarines. However, the quinine from which herapathite was made was in short supply as it was also used to treat malaria. Because of this, Land developed an alternative polaroid material, used today in sunglasses and liquid crystal displays.

Herapathite was first described by a Bristol chemist, William Herapath, in a paper published in 1852. He describes how one of his students drew his attention to bright green crystals which had formed after iodine was added to the urine of a dog which had been fed quinine. (In case you are wondering, quinine was an important drug for treating malaria and Herapath’s student was, presumably, studying how it was metabolised and excreted by the body.)  Herapath noticed through the microscope that these small crystals were polarising the light, in a similar way to the mineral tourmaline.

A preliminary search in other museum catalogues did not find any other 19th century examples of herapathite so perhaps we had the world’s oldest artificial polariser!

Shortly after my initial excitement I began to get suspicious. The historic descriptions of herapathite say that it was very fragile and hard to grow as large crystals. So why did we have a large lump of it? And it wasn’t the metallic looking green of the description. It did however exactly resemble selenite, a mineral which, as well as more technical uses, gives beautiful colours when thin sheets are placed between two polarising sheets.

Selenite designs made to be used with polarizing apparatus, c.1860

Selenite designs made to be used with polarizing apparatus, c.1860.

So, sadly, we do not have a candidate for the world’s oldest synthetic polariser, but a case of mislabelling which predates the donation of the mineral into the collection. We do, however, have some other very special artefacts relating to the polarisation of light, including the oldest polarising microscope and a nicol prism, a polariser made from the mineral Iceland spar, which was made by the inventor, William Nicol, himself. You’ll be able to see these objects in our new Enquire gallery, which opens at the National Museum of Scotland in 2016.

Polarising microscope. 1823-1829

Polarising microscope. 1823-1829.

Nicol prism

Nicol prism made of two pieces of Iceland spar (trigonal crystal calcite) cemented together with Canada balsam. The prism makes use of the double refracting qualities of Iceland spar to form an optical filter for polarising light. made by William Nicol, Edinburgh, Scotland, circa 1850.

You can find out more about the new science, decorative arts and fashion galleries at National Museum of Scotland here.


Margaret MaitlandBy Margaret Maitland, Curator of the Ancient Mediterranean.

The cultural achievements of Middle Kingdom Egypt are many, but its jewellery must surely be counted as one of the greatest: the craftsmanship of the period was never surpassed in its attention to intricate detail and technical skill. One of the finest examples, a gold pendant in the form of a catfish, resides in National Museums Scotland. The intact burial assemblage in which it was discovered was excavated at the site of Harageh by Reginald Engelbach and Battiscombe Gunn for the British School of Archaeology in Egypt. They excavated this site in one season during the winter of 1913–1914, which they published later in 1923.

A gold pendant in the form of a catfish

A gold pendant in the form of a catfish

The site of Harageh is a series of cemeteries dug in an area which lies like an island of desert sand and bedrock surrounded by cultivated land between the river Nile and the Fayum. The cemeteries there date to various periods ranging from the earliest period of Egyptian civilisation to the Coptic Christian era. Middle Kingdom burials relate to the nearby pyramid of the 12th Dynasty King Senwosret II (c. 1880-1874 BC) and the town of Lahun, which was home to the workers who built the pyramid and served the king’s cult.

A pyramid at Lahun

A pyramid at Lahun

Many of the tombs at Harageh were robbed in antiquity. While Englebach and Gunn were excavating Cemetery A, they found a tomb (no. 72), which at first appeared to have suffered the same fate, but they were soon to discover a hidden chamber that the ancient robbers had missed. Tomb 72 was a large tomb consisting of a vertical shaft cut about 2.5m deep into the bedrock leading to two chambers on the north, and one chamber on the south, each measuring about 1.5m2. All of these had been robbed, although they still contained a large quantity of gold leaf, probably lost from wooden coffins, and eight ceramic vessels.

However, on the west side of the south chamber was another shaft just under a metre deep, which appeared to be untouched. It contained the burial of a young girl, wrapped in linen in a wooden coffin, which had decayed. Her body was adorned with a large quantity of beads: three necklaces of gold foil beads, Red Sea shells tipped with gold, and hundreds of beads made from semi-precious stones – carnelian, amethyst, turquoise and lapis lazuli. These probably formed six necklaces. One of the beads was in the form of a tiny green frog.

Beaded necklaces found in a tomb at Harageh

Beaded necklaces found in a tomb at Harageh

The other finds included a scarab of glazed steatite, the base decorated with scroll-work and rimmed in gold, two uninscribed turquoise scarabs, cosmetic vessels in calcite, and a pottery vessels, whose form indicated the burial dated to the late 12th Dynasty. The British School of Archaeology in Egypt donated this grave group to National Museums Scotland.

Five gold catfish pendants found in the burial at Harageh

Five gold catfish pendants found in the burial at Harageh

The most spectacular objects found in the burial were five gold catfish pendants, three larger ones and two very small ones. Ancient Egyptian representations, such as a cosmetic jar in the form of a girl (BM EA 2572) and a tomb relief depicting the daughter of Ukhhotep III at Meir, depict fish pendants being worn by girls at the end of plaits. A fish pendant also serves as a central narrative device in a story about King Sneferu in Papyrus Westcar, a Middle Kingdom literary composition (P. Berlin 3033). The king is bored, so his chief lector-priest arranges a boating party rowed by young women dressed only in fishing nets; when the lead oarswoman’s fish pendant accidentally drops into the lake, she refuses to row any further until the priest uses his magic to retrieve it. Of the five Harageh fish pendants, the modelling of the main fish is incredibly lifelike and the details of its speckles, gills, and fins are intricately worked, despite measuring only just over 3cm in length. The incredible high quality of the main fish pendant is comparable to the gold craftsmanship found in the burials of 12th Dynasty royal women at Lahun and Dashur. However, the other fish found in the same burial, while very similar in form and size, are of much lesser workmanship. Could it be possible that the main fish pendant was a royal gift? Perhaps the others might then have been commissioned to complement it.

Gold fish pendant found at Harageh

Gold fish pendant found at Harageh

It is not only the gold fish that indicate the importance of the family who was buried in tomb 72. Many of the other materials used were obtained from distant places, which would have increased their value—turquoise from the Sinai, shells from the Red Sea, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan. The level of effort expended on excavating the multichambered rock-cut shaft tomb, and the level of material wealth in the grave, not all of which actually survived, suggests that the family of the young girl in tomb 72 would have been wealthy state officials who served the king, perhaps even at the pyramid town of Lahun.

At National Museums Scotland, we are currently in the process of analysing the jewellery from this tomb, as part of a larger project investigating ancient Egyptian gold in collaboration with the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS), so as to better understand the techniques and materials used to make these beautiful objects. We will be presenting our results at a workshop at the National Museum of Scotland on Thursday October 16th, along with other papers from distinguished speakers such as Ian Shaw, Marcel Maree, Campbell Price, and others. There are a few places still available for the workshop, which can be booked online here.

Neepa Patel By Neepa Patel, Enabler, Learning and Programmes

The National Museum of Scotland offers a great day out for families. Here is a selection of activities throughout our galleries which are fantastic for children under five.

Children love to fly away on our Magic Carpet which lands in a different gallery each week. Here, they enjoy stories, songs, crafts and playtime delivered by a member of the learning team at 10:30 and 11:30 every Wednesday and Thursday. Anyone who wants to come along can sign up at the main reception in the entrance hall.

Magic Carpet at National Museum of Scotland

Magic Carpet at National Museum of Scotland

Anyone who has ever wondered what dinosaur poop or a Viking ice skate looks like will really enjoy Feely Fridays. It’s a great way for families to get up close with our collections and we focus on a different theme each week, so there’s always something new to learn. Join us between 13:30 and 16:30 every Friday to find out more.

A Feely Friday mystery object at National Museum of Scotland

A Feely Friday mystery object at the National Museum of Scotland.

Children can also get hands on in our interactive galleries, which have been specially designed for them. The Imagine gallery on Level 1 is a dedicated space for wee ones. They can read in the story corner, make music, dress up and create patterns.

Imagine Gallery at National Museum of Scotland

Imagine Gallery at the National Museum of Scotland.

The Adventure Planet gallery on Level 5 is also a favourite with young children. In this gallery, they have the chance to uncover the skeleton of a dinosaur, crawl through the roots of a giant oak tree and search for wildlife and closely watch our leaf cutting ants. There is lots of fun to be had along the way!

Adventure Planet at National Museum of Scotland

Adventure Planet at the National Museum of Scotland.

Introduce the wonderful world of museums to your children at the National Museum of Scotland.

For more information on events and dates visit our What’s on pages.

Next Page »