The People's Story Museum looks at the lives of the ordinary residents of Edinburgh at work and play from the late 1700s until the present day. It can be found in the Canongate Tolbooth, the impressive towered building that dominates the north side of Canongate, the lower part of the Royal Mile. The Canongate Tolbooth was built in 1591 to serve as a council chamber, courtroom and jail for the Burgh of Canongate, which at that time was an eastern neighbour of the Burgh of Edinburgh and quite separate from it.
The People's Story Museum is run by Edinburgh City Council and is one of a number of museums they operate on, or near, the Royal Mile. Because its focus is very much on, as the name suggests, the human side of the city's development, it complements the council's other nearby museums. Other aspects of the story of the city can be appreciated by visiting the Museum of Edinburgh, on the opposite side of the street; the Museum of Childhood further up the Royal Mile; and the Writers' Museum in Lady Stair's Close.
From the outside you could be forgiven for assuming that the building doesn't afford much opportunity for a museum of any size. Once inside, you realise just how wrong this assumption would be. It occupies all of the wing of the building shown in the header photo, plus part of the tower of the Tolbooth. It is good to find a signature building, though one less well known than it deserves to be, put to such good use.
The entrance to the museum is found at the eastern end of the frontage, adjacent to the end of the wall of Canongate kirkyard. Beyond the door is the attractive reception area. Be prepared to be surprised here, as at the far end are mannequins of the Chapman family, representing contemporary(ish) residents of the city. Just beyond, in direct contrast, are mannequins representing the Ross family, residents of the dark, squalid and overcrowded Edinburgh Old Town of the 1700s. As an example of how far residents of the city have come over the past couple of centuries, the two contrasting family groups do a very good job indeed.
Mannequins play a large part in bringing the past to life in the museum. Two more, nearby, are getting ready for the annual St Crispin's Day procession as part of a scene bringing together an armoured knight and someone apparently dressed for the Enlightenment. Rather more obvious in intention, just around the corner, is the original tolbooth prison cell, complete with some unlucky residents who can be viewed through the barred window in the cell door.
It is when you reach the main first floor gallery that you begin to realise just how large the building actually is. What you find is an enormous double height space finished in a contemporary style that contrasts with the age of the tolbooth itself. Much of the space is given over to exhibitions showing how different crafts and industries in Edinburgh have changed in recent centuries. One exhibition looks at work in shipbuilding and the port, another at coopering, brewing and distilling. Domestic service, tailoring, baking, printing and bookbinding also all feature, while the most obvious mannequin, who keeps an eye on visitors throughout this part of their visit, is a World War One tram conductress.
En route to the second floor gallery you pass a typical slum scene from Old Town Edinburgh in 1850. In the first room on this floor is material about the development of housing in Edinburgh, including a sleeping booth for homeless men, a working class kitchen during World War Two, and a mannequin of Isobel Anderson, busy washing the family's clothes in the Murdoch Terrace washhouse.
The second room on this floor looks at citizens' leisure pursuits. A highlight here is a double scene from the 1930s. In one booth sit Elsie Watt and Lizzie Fraser, enjoying afternoon tea in Fergusson's Tea Room; while in the next are their husbands, enjoying a pint in the Empire Bar before a football match. Elsewhere in the room are young people from the 1980s.
A staircase leads up to the video area on the third floor, where visitors can view a film especially made for the museum about the lives of four Edinburgh residents, who worked in printing, retail, domestic service and the building trade.