The Museum of Edinburgh can be found in Huntly House, on Canongate, part of the city's Royal Mile. It stands opposite the imposing Canongate Tolbooth and from the outside appears to occupy two very contrasting historic buildings. To the west of Bakehouse Close it is fronted by a grey stone facade typical of many found along the Royal Mile, while east of the close is an unexpected confection painted in (historically authentic) colours best described as rhubarb and custard.
The entrance to the museum is in the colourful part of the building, and beyond it you find yourself in a surprisingly bright and modern feeling reception area and shop. From here you make your way beyond and up into a warren of rooms and galleries over several floors that very successfully reflect the history of the building the museum occupies. Huntly House seems to extend further back from the Royal Mile than it does along it, and one of the joys of visiting the museum is the succession of surprises you get as new rooms and collections reveal themselves.
The Museum of Edinburgh is run by Edinburgh City Council and is one of a number of museums they operate on or near the Royal Mile. The focus of the Museum of Edinburgh is very much on the history of the city itself and the crafts and industries for which it became known. In a sense, though, it provides part of a wider picture of the city, and other aspects can be appreciated by visiting The People's Story Museum, opposite in the Canongate Tolbooth; the Museum of Childhood further up the Royal Mile; and the Writers' Museum in Lady Stair's Close.
The Museum of Edinburgh describes itself as the city's treasure box, and there is some truly fascinating material on display here on a permanent basis, as well as exhibitions which change over time. When we visited the rear of the ground floor was home to "Foundation Edinburgh, The Story of a City". This uses a large screen set into the floor to give visitors a bird's eye view of the development of Edinburgh from a geological and historical perspective. The 17 minute film is projected onto the floor, and visitors gather round and look down onto it. From volcanos through the dark ages to Burke and Hare and Greyfriars Bobby, this really is an immersive way to find out more about the city.
Also in this end of the building are displays about the city's history. The particular focus is on the story of the Old Town and the development of the New Town. A sedan chair typifies the idea of a city of contrasts, in which it became increasingly possible for the rich to withdraw from interaction with the poor. For us, however, the undoubted highlight is a beautifully made model of the Royal Mile as it ran through Canongate and Edinburgh, then two separate burghs, at the end of the Medieval era. Not far away is a circular stack of muskets and halberds originally issued to the Town Guard, a reminder that Edinburgh was never a place in which residents could sleep altogether easily in their beds.
Towards the rear of the building is recognition that many of us find museums much more interesting if we can engage directly with the exhibits. An activity area intended particularly for visiting school groups leads through to a dressing up area where young visitors can act out the lives of their ancestors.
Elsewhere in the museum a major theme is decorative art. A series of attractive galleries house the city's collections of Edinburgh and Canongate long case clocks; Edinburgh and Canongate glass; and Edinburgh and Canongate silver. Here too, you can find a fine collection of pottery from the East Coast of Scotland.
Another significant area of the museum is given over to a collection of material about, or once belonging to, Field Marshal Douglas Haig, 1st Earl Haig, a man whose name is synonymous with the Western Front in World War One. Haig was born in Edinburgh, so it is fitting that items such as his dress uniform and his silver collection should have found their way to the Museum of Edinburgh. Haig's World War One command bunker has been recreated as part of the exhibition, complete with a model of the field marshal viewing his classified maps.
No two visitors are likely to follow the same route through the museum: and for that matter no visitor is likely to uncover everything there is to see on a first visit. Unless you want to see something in particular, it is best to be guided by serendipity. When we visited, the courtyard to the east of the building, normally open to visitors as an outdoor seating area, was closed for building work; but we were allowed a glimpse of a seldom visited rear courtyard, home to a remarkable collection of decorative stonework from long gone buildings around Edinburgh. It is hoped that funding may one day allow this to be opened to the public.