By Maya Hoole, Volunteer with Collections Services

Day 1 of volunteering at National Museums Scotland and I had no idea what the next six weeks here would be like. I met Trevor Cowie (Scottish History and Archaeology Department) in the Arrivals Hall, and after a quick coffee we set off into the rabbit warren behind the scenes at the Museum.

In October I had met Trevor at an archaeology conference in Inverness. I was volunteering for the conference organisers, Highland Council Historic Environment Team, at the time. I was looking to get more experience and could not believe it when Trevor thought it might be possible for me to spend some time at National Museums Scotland.

Whilst the whole genre of Scottish Archaeology captivates me, I’ve always had a particular soft spot for the great ‘Atlantic roundhouses’: the Brochs of Northern and Western Scotland. So when I found out that the project chosen for me to work on was with the Broch of Gurness… well, you can imagine that I had a particularly large grin on my face.

Although the excavated finds from this well-known Orkney site have been part of the national collections for many years, the detailed published catalogue had never been converted into an electronically accessible format, making accessing the information and managing the collection difficult.

So there I was a few weeks later, ready to start. Whilst Trevor had agreed to be my Line Manager as it was an archaeological subject, I was to be supervised and guided by Jo Macrae (Collections Services). I was shown to my own desk with a laptop for me to use and presented with the sacred book that would be my life for the next few weeks: ‘Bu, Gurness and the Brochs of Orkney. Part II: Gurness’ by John Hedges.

‘Bu, Gurness and the Brochs of Orkney. Part II: Gurness’ by John Hedges.

Maya’s sacred book: ‘Bu, Gurness and the Brochs of Orkney. Part II: Gurness’ by John Hedges.

Jo had a spreadsheet set up for me ready to input the catalogue data. She showed me what to do, guiding me along as I started to figure out the system and soon had me racing through the catalogue as I got to grips with it all. Over the next few weeks I was welcomed whole-heartedly into the Collections Services team (and cannot thank you all enough for that) and got into a routine working through the catalogue.

The Broch of Gurness really is quite a site; a complex series of stone buildings embracing the solid broch tower at their heart. It is thought to have been occupied from around the 1st to 2nd century BC, and was used on and off from then onwards through the Pictish period in the 5th to 8th century AD, and again by the Vikings around the 9th to 10thcentury AD. This long and complex history meant that a whole range of artefacts were discovered at the site: stone tools, animal bones and human remains, reworked Roman glass, bronze brooches, iron knife blades, spindle whorls, pins, rings, chains, needles, querns, pounders, grinders, gaming equipment… and lots of pieces of pottery, to name but a few. And let’s not forget the remains of an Orkney Vole or a Conger Eel.

Two of the most elaborate and intriguing objects in the collection are the pair of oval (or tortoise) brooches, with highly decorative zoomorphic ornamentation, as can be seen below.

Tortoise brooches found at the Broch of Gurness, Orkney

Tortoise brooches found at the Broch of Gurness, Orkney.

After a few weeks working away on the data, Jo and Trevor organised to take me down to the stores to have a look around. I felt like a little kid in a toy shop as every drawer held new delights. I was treated to trays full of flint arrow heads, stone axe heads, spindle whorls, pots, a log boat and we even hunted down some of the pieces from the Gurness collection that I’d been working on, including faunal remains and stone tools. I genuinely feel privileged to have had a glimpse into the vast stores of artefacts safely tucked away behind the scenes.

Scottish finds

Finds from archaeological sites in Scotland.

Stone axehead

Stone axehead.

Maya investigates archaeological finds in our stores.

Maya investigates archaeological finds in our stores.

Back in the office I finished off the data input with a good chunk of time left to spare. Jo kindly decided to show me how everything I had achieved could be integrated into the collections database. Once everything was uploaded, I went through the catalogue again and added in all of the dimensions to the 2,121 database records I had created. I only had a week left before Christmas. Jo bet me that I couldn’t get all the dimensions in before the holiday break, if I did she would eat her hat (or head, depending on who you ask). Luckily for Jo’s hat, I didn’t finish in time… However, it was a close call, as within two hours of my first day back in January, it was done!

For my final week here, I am going to be getting some more experience working in the database under the excellent supervision of Jo. So far, I have learned a great deal about working in the museum, about the things that need to be done that I had never even thought about before.

If you are interested in the Broch of Gurness collection there are a few items on display in the Early People gallery in the museum. These including: a bone die, two bone combs, a pinhead, a handled steatite bowl and an inscribed knife handle, amongst others. I have included a list of where and what you can find – so go and have a look!

I just want to say thank you to everyone who has been a part of this and made it possible, I won’t forget it.






Case   no.

Label   no.

Handled Steatite bowl

Early People gallery

Fat of the Land



Decorated bone handle

Early People gallery

Made of Bone



Perforated antler tine used as a   handle

Early People gallery

Made of Bone



Mount of perforated antler

Early People gallery

Made of Bone



Early People Gallery

Early People gallery

Made of Bone



Perforated sheep metacarpal

Early People gallery

Made of Bone



Long handled weaving comb of   cetacean bone

Early People gallery

Made of Bone



Long handled weaving comb of   cetacean bone

Early People gallery

Made of Bone



Perforated pinhead or playing piece   made of bone

Early People gallery

Made of Bone



Vessel for storage, cooking or   serving

Early People gallery

Baking the Earth



Bone rib, possibly a pottery tool

Early People Gallery

Baking the Earth



Glass ball

Early People gallery

Broken Glass



Ogham-inscribed knife handle

Early People gallery

Letter of Authority



Bone die

Early People gallery

Tilling the Soil



By Elaine Macintyre, Digital Media Content Manager

What did you think of that? Did it make you smile? Did it perhaps make you feel that museums aren’t boring and old, but places where it’s actually possible to have fun?

If so, then the digital component of the Scotland Creates project has already started to achieve its aims – and we’re only half way through.

Funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and Creative Scotland, Scotland Creates – A Sense of Place is a partnership project between National Museums Scotland and four other museums: the Dick Institute, Museum nan Eilean, the McLean Museum and Art Gallery and the McManus Art Gallery and Museum.

The project gives young people aged 16-24 years old the chance to work with the museums and other creative partners to curate their own exhibition, culminating in a joint collaborative exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland, which opens on 9 May 2014.

As part of the project, I was tasked with coming up with a way of increasing the use of digital media as a tool for engagement and dialogue with young people. With more young adults watching YouTube than TV (in the US, at any rate), using film seemed like a no-brainer. Creating viral videos that would not only celebrate and promote the five museums involved but also help young people see museums in a new, more exciting light seemed like the way to go.

We partnered up with digital agency Sound Delivery and documentary film maker Suzanne Cohen to make it happen. The aim was to equip young volunteers from each museum with the skills to storyboard a 30 second promotional film and to produce all the assets required, from animation and artwork to filmed footage and photographs. These would then be put together by Suzanne, to create the final films in collaboration with the volunteers.

And so began two intensive but exhilarating days of training led by Suzanne, as young people from Edinburgh, the Western Isles, Kilmarnock, Greenock and Dundee converged on the National Museum of Scotland for a comprehensive crash course in film-making.

Film-making workshop

Suzanne helps young volunteers from Edinburgh edit a short film.

The participants began by investigating how short films can change people’s perceptions, viewing examples such as this film from the Time to Change campaign, which tackles stereotypes surrounding mental health issues. Next, they interviewed each other on camera to find out what might put young people off visiting museums. The words ‘boring’, ‘old fashioned’ and ‘not for me’ emerged frequently. Their brief for the rest of the two days? To work out how a short film could turn these opinions around.

Over the two days, the volunteers were introduced to a range of film-making techniques that could help them do just that, including vox pops, silent film, stop frame animation and (my personal favourite) bringing a museum object alive using the Morfo app.

The following short films were made in just a couple of hours. The brief was to prove that visiting a museum can be fun and they all succeeded admirably, if in very different ways:

Some of our young volunteers have been involved in film-making before, either as part of the Scotland Creates project, at college or as a personal interest, but others had no experience at all. Some were outgoing, others really quite shy, and none of the volunteers from the different museums had met before. Yet by the end of the first day all had emerged from their shells to share ideas and support each other collaboratively, inspired and enthused by the activities they’d taken part in.

The next step of the project sees our volunteers return to their museums and start building their storyboards and creating their assets. I can’t wait to see what they come up with – but even without that final outcome, I can’t help thinking that already the project has been a success, offering young people from across Scotland an opportunity to build confidence and skills, and to see museums and learning in a new light.

We may not replicate the viral success of Gangnam Style or Miley Cyrus, but we’re hoping our volunteers will make films they’ll feel proud to share across their social networks. We’re encouraging them to tweet about their experiences so far – here’s what @NoOneCallsMeSam had to say: “Working with @sounddelivery these past two days has been awesome! Looking forward to creating our museum promo in up and coming weeks.”  

Still don’t believe museums are fun? I’ll leave you with these stop frame animation films, made using replica objects. If you don’t think they’re fun, there’s no pleasing you…

By John Hutchinson, volunteer with the Science and Technology department

I have been a volunteer at National Museums Scotland for about five years now and work within the Science and Technology department; not at the Museum on Chambers Street but in the National Museums Collection Centre in Granton. This in itself gives a ‘behind the scenes’ view of the museum and its collections.

National Museums Collection Centre

The National Museums Collection Centre in Granton.

I thoroughly enjoy my time there and although the work, if described to an outsider, might be considered as repetitive and never ending as we are recording 19th and 20th century engineering drawings, it is far from that possible impression.

The drawings in themselves are the working ‘patterns’ that were used to create many intricate machines, some very large machines (such as a machine for putting the pattern onto lino) and to see the detail to which all were drafted is incredible. Precision, clarity and attention to detail are viewed by us on each drawing we are dealing with. I find great enjoyment and honour to be one of a very few who can see these now and understand how they came about. I think I must have had some encouragement from my father, who was an architect and created plans almost free-hand to design houses using a beautiful set of drafting pens with ink on a large drawing board.

But other than this main thrust of my current work and the S & T project to ensure the future safety and cataloguing of all drawings, I often do other things. This includes finding machines within Granton, identifying parts of machines and then locating the actual machine that they belong to in the stores, taking and returning items that need to be photographed and seeing and handling (carefully and with gloves on!) the first sewing machine to be made.

Early sewing machine c.1846-1872 made by Elias  Howe of the United States of America

Early sewing machine c.1846-1872 made by Elias Howe of the United States of America.

Life is not boring or repetitive and when you come across an item that is the same as one that you also owned (as I have done), then perhaps that is the time that you realise that you are also a trainee fossil! It is fun and I love it, long may it continue.

Sam FairbairnBy Sam Fairbairn, Scotland Creates volunteer

On Thursday 28 November 2013, our Scotland Creates volunteers launched three animated films presenting objects from our Science and Technology collection in a new and exciting light. The launch formed part of Museum Takeover Day, a national initiative to celebrate the contribution made by children and young people to museums. Special events at National Museum included performances of science show Alex’s Amazing Adventures by Holy Rood High School and a song-writing workshop with Scottish rock band Miniature Dinosaurs. The animated films, devised and directed by the volunteers, can be seen in the Connect and Shaping Our World galleries until 21 April 2014. The Scotland Creates project is supported by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and Creative Scotland.

My summary

How do I sum up the exhibition? It was an amazing sight, seeing all the ideas that we started with come together to create something awesome. It was hard work but it paid off seeing the people who came along to see the animations.

How the day went

The day started off with a lot of last minute preparations while waiting for people to arrive. Then at two o’clock the guests started arriving and we were in charge of seeing that the guests were all in the room so that the introductions and the animations could be screened. Once the guests were all seated there was an introduction by the Community Engagement Manager, Christine McLean, who introduced what we had been doing and then the lights were dimmed, signalling the start of an introduction to what we had been doing in the build-up weeks leading to the opening. And then the animations started!

The first animation shown was Dolly the Sheep, then Bionic Arm vs iPad and finally it was the film about Einstein and James Clerk Maxwell. You can see the opening to Bionic Arm vs iPad here.

Once the previews had finished we then watched a flash mob dance by pupils from Craigmount High, Forrester High and Leith Academy. Then to finish of the day there was a live performance by Miniature Dinosaurs, which finished the official opening for the exhibition.

Pupils gave a surprise dance performance in the Grand Gallery

Pupils from Craigmount High, Forrester High and Leith Academy gave a surprise dance performance in the Grand Gallery.

Miniature Dinosaurs performing in the Grand Gallery

Miniature Dinosaurs performing in the Grand Gallery.

My final thoughts

The day went well, no problems came up and it all ran smoothly which was good, and the guests had good feedback on the animations. The exhibition runs in the Science and Technology galleries at National Museum of Scotland from 28 November to 21 April 2014 if you’re interested. I would certainly go see it.

By Jon Hodges, Volunteer with the Department of World Cultures

I have been volunteering in the Department of World Cultures for nine months, during which I have not only gained a wealth of invaluable experience, but also had a great time exploring collections, as well as discovering some colourful facts about the Museum’s history. Throughout my time in the department, staff made me very much at home, and I knew that my contribution towards the work of the department was appreciated.

My first project was to improve the records of the Fijian collection, which entailed lugging old registers between Collections Services and World Cultures. It looked like I’d struck gold when I came across an entry for: “Trumpet of Triton shell with one finger-hole; double handle of plaited sinnet attached. “Used in the last war in Fiji.” [1876]”’ although, on more sober reflection, the claim should perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt (the description of this object in the Index Cards omits any mention of its use in a war, and it could have been a gambit by a shrewd souvenir vendor).

Trumpet of triton shell with one finger hole and a double handle of plaited sinnet attached

Trumpet of triton shell with one finger hole and a double handle of plaited sinnet attached.

Other conspicuous differences between earlier and later descriptions of objects show a development in the way in which objects, and the people who made them, have been represented in museums through the ages. Some of the later entries are essentially duplicates of earlier records, albeit with slight differences, including the expunging of vocabulary such as ‘heathen’ and ‘idol’. Whilst these descriptons indicate a less than sympathetic understanding on the part of Victorian scholars, they do reflect the circumstances surrounding objects’ acquisition. Missionary organisations (of which by far the largest was the London Missionary Society) were among the key collectors of objects in the Pacific and elsewhere, and often brought home religious artefacts as trophies of a mission’s success.

Having finished work on the Registers, I continued with a review of ethnographic collections, using the Museum’s annual reports, directors’ correspondence and scrapbooks as a mine of information, digging out whatever seemed interesting or relevant. They give a unique insight into the history of the collections within the Museum. ‘World Cultures’ at National Museums Scotland can be said to have started with the transfer of Edinburgh University’s ethnographical collection to the Industrial Museum of Scotland (the first incarnation of National Museums Scotland) in 1854.

Other private donations, plus the occasional purchase of items, allowed the collection to develop, but these objects don’t seem to have been on display (the building took a long time to complete…). When the Great Hall was opened in 1875, the object that appears to have captured the imagination of visitors was the state parasol of Kofi Karikari, the Asantehene (king of the Asante Empire in West Africa), which had been taken the previous year at the conclusion of the Second Anglo-Asante War under the command of Major-General Sir Garnet Wolseley, and which had already been displayed in London at the South Kensington Museum (or, in modern parlance, the V&A):

“Other interesting objects which have been obtained on loan are the state umbrella of King Coffee, and a collection of gold ornaments which, we presume, form part of the spoils brought home from the Ashantee War… the more prominent and interesting objects in the Museum came in for a fair share of attention. Perhaps the most popular of these was King Coffee’s umbrella, which was placed immediately behind the Delhi Gate, and afforded a fruitful theme of remark.”

Illustration from Punch, 21 March 1874

Illustration from Punch, 21 March 1874, showing Britannia presented with King Coffee’s umbrella. Click on the image to see a larger version. Courtesy of Jonathan Hodges.

One of the earliest exhibitions in the Museum to take on a truly ‘international’ character was, in a typically Victorian vein, entitled: ‘Pipes of All Peoples’, examining the smoking habits of different cultures around the world. The Scotsman’s report, which I found pasted into the first volume of Museum scrapbooks, gives a brief glimpse of smoking paraphernalia from the Pacific:

“From Australia and New Zealand and Oceania are a number of rude bowls, one of these being made out of the tooth of a sperm whale, with the leg bone of an albatross for a stem. Here also is a Polynesian club pipe, with which the possessor could either fight or smoke.”

The collection as a whole seems to have been little used, until 1881, as the report from the year makes clear:

“Some months of the past year were in large measure devoted to the important work of examining, cleaning, and labelling where necessary, sundry collections stored in boxes in the cellars; and during the process some valuable ethnographical specimens which had been in the old College collection were discovered.”

From ‘discovering’ the collection, it was not long before it went on public display, where its significance was starting to be recognised:

“The stores have been carefully re-examined, and some portions of our valuable and extensive ethnographical collections have been brought out, and re-arranged in juxtaposition to the large and important pre-historic archaeological collection lent to the Museum by the Earl of Northesk, and they will greatly increase the educational value of that remarkable series. The task of re-arranging our specimens I entrusted to Mr. W. Clark, assistant in the Industrial Department, who has carried it out with great credit to himself and to my entire satisfaction.”

The Facing the Sea gallery at National Museum of Scotland

The Facing the Sea gallery at National Museum of Scotland.

From this point onwards, the ethnographic collections had a home of their own, which has continued (in spite of hiatuses during the two World Wars) down to today. A further reorganisation led to the ‘Gallery of Comparative Ethnography’ in 1927, followed by a spate of temporary exhibitions, on themes such as ‘Meet New Zealand’, down to today, where Facing the Sea can boast of being the only gallery in the UK dedicated exclusively to the culture of the Pacific Islands.

A guest post by Kirke Kook, National Museums Scotland Collections Volunteer and Community Collector for the Science Museum telegram project

In February this year I was offered a unique opportunity to be involved in an exciting project initiated by the Science Museum in London, which aims to narrate British history through telegram messages.

Whilst museums, when displaying the history of communication, usually concentrate on the thrilling machinery used to send telegrams, the stories that telegrams tell have remained largely unexplored.

Constructing their new Information Age gallery, London Science Museum has decided to display not only the machines, but also the spectrum of messages that were sent through them. During the past few months, I have been involved in preparations to record telegrams not only for the benefit of the Science Museum’s collection, but also for the National Museum of Scotland.

I am currently contacting local museums, societies and associations in Scotland which could help spread the word about the project in their communities. After establishing my contacts, I will invite people to bring in their telegrams, which I will then scan. People have an option to either donate the original telegram to either of the museums or to allow me to add a digital copy to their preferred museum’s collections.

Telegram sent to the Royal Scottish Museum

Doing business: telegram announcing the dispatch of a new addition to the museum’s collection in 1924.

Telegram drama

Telegram drama: a message delaying a museum visit to the Wanlockhead Lead Mining Company due to an accident in their mining shaft, also in 1924.

Although the official collecting campaign is taking place in July, I have already scanned some great telegrams brought in by the staff and volunteers of National Museums Scotland. I have got a flavour of British India in the 1890s, and experienced life in the roaring ‘70s via telegrams sent by a staff member’s father (a member of a rock band) to her mother (a Lionel Blair girl), both touring the country with their troupes.

Sending love: message from Lloyd to his girlfriend, a Lionel Blair girl, sent in 1973

Sending love: message from Lloyd to his girlfriend, a Lionel Blair girl, sent in 1973.

Some other telegrams, however, have more intimate stories to tell, for example, a grandmother announcing her arrival from France to help to care for a grandchild gravely ill with meningitis.

Lending a helping hand: telegram from a grandmother announcing her arrival at Heathrow, 1976.

Lending a helping hand: telegram from a grandmother announcing her arrival at Heathrow, 1976.

Earlier in May I had a fantastic opportunity to travel to Aultbea in the Scottish Highlands to introduce the project to the veterans of the Russian Arctic Convoys. Anna McKessock, daughter of one of the men serving in the Arctic Convoys in the 1940s, holds the train ticket and telegram sent to her father, Stanley, to inform him of the death of his mother. However, the return trip from Aberdeen turned into an adventure of its own:

“His mother died when he was based in the South of England and he had gone home to Aberdeen for her funeral. He was sitting on the train from Aberdeen back down south and… a group of lassies got on the train somewhere outside Newcastle and started talking to him. The next thing he knew, they pulled him off the train and he ended up spending the day at their work – a Newcastle brewery! They were brilliant lassies… he got free beer all day. He made it back to his ship but he cannae remember how…” tells Anna.

Telegram stories with tea & cake: meeting the Russian Arctic Convoys veterans in May 2013

Telegram stories with tea & cake: meeting the Russian Arctic Convoys veterans in May 2013.

Talking to the veterans and local villagers in Aultbea showed me how unique the riches can be that so many people hide at home! I am very happy that I can be part of unveiling Scotland’s telegram stories and I hope that people will continue to help me share their experiences, whether personal or wrapped in local or national history.

Klara RohelBy Klara Rohel, Volunteer with the Scotland Creates project

Our Scotland Creates volunteers are working with curators and other staff from National Museums Scotland to create an exhibition on the theme of Scotland Creates: A Sense of Place. Recently, the volunteers visited our storage facility at Leith Custom House to investigate some objects with curator Val Boa, from the McLean Museum and Art Gallery in Greenock, one of four partner museums taking part in the project.

Val Boa from the McLean Museum and Art Gallery in Greenock joined us in Edinburgh to look at National Museums Scotland’s Clyde pottery collections at Leith Custom House. The Clyde Pottery Company, in Greenock, produced wares from 1816 to the early 1900s, and was an important industry in Inverclyde. McLean Museum has the largest collection of Clyde pottery in the world, and Val is an expert in the subject.

During the session, however, Val baffled us all with an intriguing object, which a member of the public had brought into the McLean Museum.

The mystery object

The mystery object.

This gargoyle-like owl stumped us all.

Klara with the stone owl

Klara with the stone owl.

Curator Lyndsey examines the mysterious object

Curator Lyndsey examines the mysterious object.

Earlier in the session, Val and Lindsey Mcgill, Assistant Curator of Scottish History, had talked us through the selection of Clyde pottery and showed us how to spot the real McCoy.

Curators Lyndsey Mcgill and Val Boa displaying items of Clyde pottery

Curators Lyndsey Mcgill and Val Boa displaying items of Clyde pottery.

Artefacts of questionable authenticity were not uncommon it would seem, with museums often unwittingly acquiring fakes for their collections, though we are told these counterfeit objects are getting easier to tell apart from the real deals.

Val Boa explains how to spot fake Clyde pottery

Val Boa explains how to spot fake Clyde pottery.

Val then presented her stone companion to Lindsey who – after some musings of her own – called upon the expert help of the Museum’s resident archaeologists. After the initial fear that their brains would not be at our disposal due to the infelicitous timing of luncheon, hope was restored with the promise of a visit in ten minutes.

Fraser Hunter, Principle Curator of Iron Age and Roman Collections, arrived from the other end of the building, knowledge at the ready to vanquish our blundering preconceptions. We awaited his verdict in an atmosphere of piercing anticipation.

Fraser Hunter examines the stone owl

Fraser Hunter examines the stone owl.

Awaiting Fraser's verdict

Awaiting Fraser’s verdict.

The conversation passes in a blur. ‘Aha’, ‘yes that’s right’, ‘really’, ‘a fake’, ‘well I did wonder’, ‘how fascinating’ and so on.

As it turns out, the area from which the pottery comes was a hotspot for faked relics. Fraser believed it was one of a number of objects planted around a crannog in the Inverclyde area around a hundred years ago. So our little friend most likely belongs to that trend of forged objects.

Watch this space for more revealing behind the scenes stories…

Photographing the session

Photographing the session.

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