Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Writer's Museum

This morning we visited the Writer's Museum, which is located in a historic house in Lady Stair's Close. Just outside the museum is Makar's Court, which features paving stones inscribed with quotes from notable Scottish writers. My favorite quotes in Makar's Court include one by Sir Walter Scott, "This is my own, my native land," and another by Neil Munro, "And yet - and yet, this New Road will some day be the Old Road, too." These quotes embodied, for me, the intense national pride and pragmatism of the Scots. There are ongoing plans to add paving stones to the court, which will continue to enhance the atmosphere of the museum. The house itself was built in 1622 as a home, and was given to the City of Edinburgh in 1907 for the purposes of housing a museum. The age of the building, as well as its original function as a home, result in some interesting idiosyncrasies in the architecture. For example, a sign posted by a staircase warned visitors of differing stair depths. Apparently, staircases in homes were often built like this to encourage uninvited guests, those unfamiliar with the home, to stumble and betray their presence. What an interesting glimpse into history!

The museum's purpose is to highlight the lives of Scottish writers, although the exhibition is devoted most largely to Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, and Robert Louis Stevenson. The museum's collections were small and included several reproductions, although there were a handful of items that caught and held my attention. My favorite piece in the museum was a large cabinet owned by Robert Louis Stevenson and built by Deacon Brodie. Deacon Brodie was a notorious criminal and the inspiration for Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Also fascinating were the many photographs of Stevenson, accompanied by text including quotes from those who knew him. The insights offered by his sister allow us to know that a photograph of a long-haired Robert Louis Stevenson indicates a serious illness, as his doctor refused to allow him to cut his hair unless he was well. This pairing of text and image demonstrates how new depth of understanding can be gained from an effective exhibition.

Another of the items displayed in the museum that I found effective in humanizing a great writer was the rocking horse used by Sir Walter Scott when he was a boy. Scott suffered from polio when he was young, and as a result one leg was shorter than the other for the rest of his life. His childhood rocking horse, with one footrest significantly higher than the other, reflects this. It's a powerful way to personalize a writer of such reputation, well-respected and unapproachable. The most interesting item, to me, in the Robert Burns room was his writing desk. When I first entered the room, a CD of his recited work was playing, and hearing the words while looking on the desk upon which they were likely written was an exciting and slightly surreal experience. The visit to the museum was topped off by a temporary display centered around Ian Rankin, a contemporary mystery writer and the creator of the popular Inspector Rebus. I was pleased to see that the Writer's Museum wasn't anchored solely in the past, and was both willing and enthusiastic in celebrating a wider world of Scottish work.

In short, I found this museum to be on the small and sparse side, but I was impressed with what they had accomplished with limited resources. For a small museum with limited scope, it was remarkably successful in communicating the importance of Scottish writers not only to Scotland, but to the wider world and humanity in general. I hope that the museum will continue to expand its holdings and experiment in its presentation of them to museum visitors. If the Writer's Museum focuses on continuously improving service to the public, I believe it is possible for it to become a hidden gem in a city of great museums and historical attractions.