Let’s get the burning question out of the way first – yes, the iconic glass floor is still present and correct in the refurbished Provost Skene’s House.
Not, of course, that you’ll really notice it. You’ll be far too busy taking in the wonderful and absorbing transformation of Aberdeen’s oldest building.
It has gone from being a tired and outdated museum piece into a vibrant celebration of the most talented of the sons and daughters of the north-east and all the gifts they have given the world.
Not that the near 500-year history of Provost Skene’s House has been lost in the mix of the Hall Of Heroes project. Far from it. It is an integral – and very much enhanced – part of the whole experience of visiting this grand old building that throws its doors open to the public from today (Saturday October 9).
The changes are obvious even as you walk up to the entrance door. The outside looks fresh and renewed with a sensitive re-pointing using traditional tried and tested Scottish building methods.
Hall of Heroes is riot of visuals and sound
That care and attention to detail continues inside, with a welcoming gift shop to glance at before you start into the main attraction – the much-vaunted Hall Of Heroes.
On the ground floor, you start your journey (minding your head on the ancient low doors, of course) in what looks like a dimly lit tunnel, full of intriguing sound and vision, with blank busts lining either side.
This is not a passageway for walking through. This is a place to linger as each bust takes its turn to shine, bursting in a riot of visuals and soundscapes celebrating 10 heroes of the north-east, as chosen by the public.
The strains of Annie Lennox’s Sweet Dreams are accompanied by graphics and text telling the story of our home-grown superstar. Seconds later, another section comes to life and there’s the Scotland The What team in all their glory. Wait a moment and crime writer Stuart MacBride will read sections of a Logan book as images of police “Do Not Cross” tape flash up.
It really is an eye-catching way to introduce people to their new Lord Provost Skene’s House – so much so, you don’t even notice the glass floor.
But the Hall Of Heroes is just your starter for 10. The three floors of the building are crammed with different areas putting 100 or so north-east innovators, artists, entertainers, scientists and sporting champions in the spotlight in a series of areas.
Jaw-dropping delights are everywhere in Provost Skene’s House
Everywhere you look, there is something to catch your eye and delight you… seeing George Washington Wilson’s photos in stereoscope is jaw-dropping, and you can listen to the late, lamented storyteller Stanley Robertson reading to you.
No modern attraction is complete without interactive exhibits and there are plenty of buttons to push, from an MRI-stye display to discover all the lifesaving breakthroughs north-east health experts have given the world, to a magician’s hat, complete with rabbit, to celebrate the life of the Wizard Of The North, John Henry Anderson.
But while this is, indeed, a modern use of Provost Skene’s House, its history is still very much celebrated in this excellent re-invention of the building by Aberdeen City Council.
The famous Painted Gallery is a sublime quiet space, ideal for just taking a moment to yourself, with the 300-year-old illustrated panels and ceiling almost glowing in the sympathetic lighting.
A lovely low-tech touch is the provision of hand-held mirrors that allow you to walk through, taking in the detail above your head without craning your neck. A nice flash of the human touch – and humour – comes in a caveat on the back of one mirror “don’t topple backwards”. A rule for life as much as for a visit to the house.
Another neat touch is in the cupboard-sized Cabinet Room where torches are on offer so you can pick out the detail of tiny classical figures reclining in the edges of 18th-century paintwork.
Many ‘didn’t know that’ moments
There is a natural flow to the way the building has been laid out, with each themed room – such as World Life Savers, Sporting Champions, Super Stars – leading into each other in a joined-up thought out process.
With any exhibition or collection, the aim should always be to come out with more than you went in. Provost Skene’s House provides that by the bucketload.
There are names you know, but here’s their story, complete with quotes from loved ones or life advice from the person themselves. There are names you don’t know, providing many “I didn’t know that” moments. Such as the astronomer David Gill working with George Washington Wilson to take one of the first photographs of the moon.
But what you really take away is a renewed respect and understanding of what the people of the north-east – all those pioneers, visionaries, humanitarians, entertainers, sportsmen and women – have given not just our area but the world.
This is not an insular or parochial affair. It is global in its reach and far-reaching in its scope of human achievement.
Provost Skene’s House is a truly magnificent addition to the cultural life of Aberdeen. It’s not just about the people of the north-east, but for them. Get yourself along and enjoy it.