The United Kingdom is chock-full of transport museums. From London to Yorkshire, from Dundee to Ulster, there are enough historic trains, ships, and planes to satisfy the most demanding enthusiast. Scotland is no exception. The National Museum of Flight stands on an enormous World War Two airfield, with hangars and wooden buildings surrounding pleasant stretches of grass ideal for picnicking. The location is accessible via train to Edinburgh followed by catching a bus to North Berwick.
Once you get there, friendly staff regale you with aviation stories as you queue to see the Concorde. These glimpses of the past can range from the Concorde’s most glamorous passengers to the chauvinistic nickname fighter pilots gave their engine restrictors: ‘Miss Shilling’s orifice.’ Engineer Beatrice Shilling, who developed this crucial device to aid RAF defences during the Battle of Britain, may not have been flattered. A grossly sexualised pin-up girl (with concerning anatomical distortions) painted on the side of one plane elicited many a scoff: ‘Men!’
The museum’s star attraction is the Concorde (https://www.nms.ac.uk/national-museum-of-flight/things-to-see-and-do/the-concorde-experience/), which occupies the place of honour in a spacious exhibition hall with a high, reinforced ceiling. A series of engaging displays follow the luxury aircraft through the decades, including newspaper articles and a film playing every few minutes. With footage projected on a huge wall, the scale of the exhibition is extremely effective. Rows of connected seats, where you can sit down to enjoy the film, resemble nothing more than an airport’s departure lounge. Tactile interactives invite children to guess the identities of famous passengers in flip-up panels and even get a weathervane spinning. (They’re ostensibly designed for children but enjoyed by visitors of all ages!)
While celebrating the Concorde’s technological innovation and celebrity sparkle, the exhibition does not shy away from its downsides. Text highlights the aircraft’s troubled history, and one newspaper display draws attention to intolerable noise pollution—long-suffering locals cheered when the Concorde was finally discontinued.
After climbing a metal staircase that rattles excitingly, you enter the Concorde itself. The interior is elegant but cramped, almost like a corridor. The cockpit shows off impressive and incomprehensible pilot controls. There is a very fancy airplane toilet. A drinks service trolley in the passenger aisle can be spied through a glass divider, and just beside the aisle’s entrance, stewards’ suit jackets are hung in a pristine cupboard.
Exiting the Concorde onto a small balcony, visitors can enjoy the view from a dizzying height. WWII-era planes and engines are dotted around the hall, and can be approached to examine their interior workings. Walking underneath the Concorde is a nice change too; you get the experience from all sides. During our visit, there was a Lego exhibition (https://www.warrenelsmore.com/exhibitions/brick-wonders) in the same space, with captivating recreations of historic sites around the world. You could peer into a pyramid to find a tomb chamber complete with pottery, catch the light in a medieval chapel’s meticulously crafted stained-glass windows, and examine tiny tradespeople’s wares. The care and creativity invested in every detail showed why artist Warren Elsmore’s work has been so successful.
Other hangars exhibited both British and German fighter planes, as well as aviator uniforms and films on aerial warfare. Being a national museum, the organisation may have been less inclined to curatorial critique than smaller independent museums. Our tour of the compound ended at the museum café and shop, where RAF merch could be purchased. More information about the airfield’s history can be found here: https://www.nms.ac.uk/national-museum-of-flight/things-to-see-and-do/history-of-east-fortune/.
The National Museum of Flight is open 10am–5pm daily. Slots must be booked in advance.
Free entry for National Museums Scotland members and children under 5
Child (5–15): £7.50
Family (2 adults 2 children): £33
Book tickets here: https://www.nms.ac.uk/national-museum-of-flight/
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Wei Ai Ng is currently a Masters student in Museum Studies at the University of Glasgow. She earned her BA in History and English from the University of Oxford, where she regularly volunteered at the Ashmolean Museum. Wei Ai has written research reports for the United Kingdom’s National Trust and the Netherlands-based Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation. She aims to specialise in museum education, with a focus on early childhood development.