Fresh in from far out - Galloway

<em>New Statesman Scotland</em> - Revelations from a museum

Whichever body is going to fashion A Cultural Strategy for Scotland has its work cut out. At the Dumfries consultation - just one of a series from Thurso to Galashiels - a plethora of submissions was noted by members of the committee appointed by the Scottish executive. These covered, in no particular order, points related to language, dancing, cooking, painting, theatre, heritage, landscape, family trees, music, carving, crafts and football. Each wanted to play its part in the initial document's aim of "celebrating Scotland".

In Man's Rise to Civilisation, the historian Peter Farb defined culture through a numbering of artefacts. A fork, for example, counted as one unit. By this means, the Digger Indians of Arizona had circa 600 cultural units; General Patten's tank core a few million. It was a rough and ready reckoner of cultural comparison and Farb did not have to place any value judgement upon any aspect of it. However, the longer the Dumfries meeting went on, the more I was put in mind of his methodology and of the theological proposition that one definition of God is that which escapes definition. Thus a healthy definition of culture might be that which cannot be encompassed within a cultural strategy.

On the bright side, the meeting was chaired by Mark Jones who, as director of the Museum of Scotland, captains the building that is the most significant cultural landmark of my lifetime. Some years ago, there was an Edinburgh Festival exhibition of pre-Reformation Scotland with the title "Angels, Nobles and Unicorns". It was a revelation. Here were artefacts, artworks and evidence of a Scotland I had not known - or, more accurately, whose presence I had not felt: a land of cathedrals, of great visual sensitivity, whose libraries showed its ambitious intellectual and cultural commerce. This was a culture I had had to go to mainland Europe to experience; a culture I had thought temperamentally and geographically beyond us. Yet here it was; and to see ourselves as Europeans, which had always seemed the political fiction of our times, suddenly seemed not only a possibility but had been at one point, in terms of cultural interchange, a reality.

Much of what constituted that exhibition now has a permanent home in the Museum of Scotland. And though perhaps the pre-Reformation exhibits affect me most, there are plenty of other strands of identity to be explored there.

The Museum of Scotland is built on to the Chamber Street museum, which was the museum of my childhood. That was where I was taken in primary school to kneel before a vast tableau vivant to be taught about sea life; where we tried to imagine flesh on the huge hanging whale ribs; and where we always ended up in the hall where miniature models of locomotives, cutaway ships and bisected engines showed us Scotland's engineering feats. Even then, it must have been a heritage on the wane; for all that my grandfather was a retired merchant engineer, I pressed the buttons only to animate the models, not to understand their workings. That gallery has been dismantled, its choicest exhibits absorbed elsewhere, and I see the new Museum of Scotland as the museum of my son's childhood - a museum that implicitly presents a host of arguments concerning identity, history, culture and legacy but which, as its top floor of people-sponsored exhibits shows, is both flexible and open-ended.

On St Andrews Day, the 90-year-old poet George Bruce lifted the Saltire Award for Scottish Book of the Year, proving to those who claim Scotland is no place for a poet the rightness of Theodore Roethke's journal note that "inspiration isn't as important as the right kind of frustration". At the same time, the Museum of Scotland celebrated its first anniversary with the launch of a collection of poems edited by the distinguished historian, biographer and poet Jenni Calder. Calder currently enjoys the wonderful title at the museum of "Head, Scotland and the World", that being "an initiative to further the understanding of the life, work and influence of Scots overseas". The poems in Scotland the World to Scotland reflect on that Scottish diaspora.

Although admitting to a lack of cash typical of any large institution, Calder feels that "we have a duty to be optimistic".

It is a healthy corrective to much cultural debate - perhaps even to the reservations with which this column began. Moreover, the project she steers, with its possibilities of broadening and deepening identity in a two-way exchange through time and across all borders, shows that reaching out can be a viable alternative to jumping ship.