In the World Cultures galleries you can encounter diverse peoples, cultures and objects, discovering how we differ and what we all share. The objects on display are drawn from the museum’s oldest and most important historical collections and they demonstrate Scotland's international links.

The galleries are organised by theme, both offering insights into the individual cultures and providing unexpected juxtapositions.

World Cultures galleries 

Above: World Cultures Galleries.

Patterns of Life, on Level 1, explores the dynamic interaction between people and their possessions throughout the stages of life, from across the four continents. Possessions can reflect identity, mark important life events, and serve as a means of expression, such as the modern African custom of choosing a coffin in the shape of a favourite object.

Next door, Living Lands presents objects made by indigenous peoples, from the North American arctic to the deserts of Australia, and considers how landscape influences the way people lead their lives and what they believe. The displays also emphasize the modern situation, through contemporary art such as works by the Australian artist Danie Mellor.

Living Lands sculptures by Wally Pwerle

Above: Sculptures by Wally Pwerle in the Living Lands gallery.

Facing the Sea, on  Level 3, is the only gallery in the UK dedicated to the cultures of the South Pacific.  The gallery looks at the cultural diversity of this region and explains how Pacific Islanders’ lives are framed by their relationships with the sea. Here you can find our Maori waka, or war canoe, sensitively completed in Perspex by contemporary artist George Nuku.

Facing the Sea

Above: The Maori war canoe, known as a waka in the Facing the Sea gallery.

Performance and Lives celebrates the diversity of music, dance and costume around the world. Not only can you see various instruments on display, ranging from classical to folk, but also listen to recordings and play instruments specially made for the gallery by artist Victor Gama.

On Level 5, Artistic Legacies considers the relationship between what is considered artistic ‘tradition’ and the work of contemporary artists, for example African artist Gérard Quenum’s arresting sculpture L’Ange. Using the artists’ own words, the displays show art to be something that is perpetually evolving, frequently borrowing from other times and places.

Inspired by Nature examines the ways in which people have engaged emotionally and spiritually with nature through art. This can be seen in the fragile Chinese headdress made from kingfisher feathers, and the elegant, evocative poppies by Iranian sculptor Maryam Salour. Nature still influences artists, although contemporary work is often a statement about human impact on the natural world.

Lastly, in the Imagine gallery on Level 1, young children (0–8 years) can develop their senses by interacting with shapes, colours, patterns and motifs taken from around the world.

Gallery closures

Please note that due to the exciting programme to create two new galleries showcasing our Ancient Egypt and East Asian collections, the East Asia (China, Japan and Korea) and Ancient Egypt galleries are currently closed. The new galleries are due to open in 2018/19. You can find out more about the project here. You can also download our Ancient Egypt trail to find artefacts on display in other galleries, or discover Ancient Egypt through our online games and learning resources.

On display

African dolls

These multi-coloured plastic dolls, western in their appearance, are very popular in Africa today.

Artworks by Danie Mellor

In 2013, National Museums Scotland acquired one metal sculpture and one work on paper by contemporary Australian artist Danie Mellor.

Benin head of a king

One of the highlights of our World Cultures African collections comes from the kingdom of Benin in Nigeria. This sophisticated bronze sculpture commemorates the sacred person of an Oba or King.

Classical collection

Our Classical collection unlocks a window to a ‘birthplace of civilisation’: ancient Greece and Rome.

Coral necklace

This opulent deep red coral and 18 carat gold necklace was created by Yazzie Johnson and Gail Bird.

Crane Dance

This woven bamboo flower basket titled ‘Crane Dance’ was created by Japanese artist Buseki Suikō in 2009.

Ere ibeji figures

These carved wooden sculptures from West Africa represent the souls of deceased twins.

Jain painting

Discover how this stunning, detailed wall hanging was brought back to life by our Textile Conservation team.

Jean Jenkins collection

Delve into the diverse collection of pioneering ethnomusicologist Jean Jenkins.

Kingfisher headdress

Inspired by nature, conserved by our Conservation team: uncover the story behind this fragile Chinese artefact.

Gérard Quenum's 'L'Ange'

This bold and engaging sculpture is a mixed media piece made from recycled found objects.

Mercedes-Benz coffin

Is it a car? Is it a coffin? In fact it’s both, an amazing piece of artwork that celebrates a modern Ghanaian tradition.

Tibetan prayer wheel house

The Tibetan Prayer Wheel House offers visitors a tangible experience of a common feature of Tibetan culture.
Shetland Young Fiddler of the Year 2009 Chapman Cheng tries out the Shetland fiddle.

Shetland fiddle

Discover how this traditional Scottish instrument was commissioned for the new Performance and Lives gallery in the National Museum of Scotland.

Standing heech by Parviz Tanavoli

This green fibreglass cast sculpture titled ‘Standing Heech’ was created by renowned Iranian artist Parviz Tanavoli. The work is a three dimensional representation of the Persian word ‘heech’, meaning ‘nothing’.

Valley of Lar poppies

These five sculptured earthenware blossoms with their brilliant orange-red glazes recall the poppies of Lar Valley in Iran.

Waka Taua

Maori craftsmanship and museum conservation bring to life one of our most unusual and intriguing objects.

Weaving loom collected by David Livingstone

A weaving loom collected by David Livingstone among the Mang’anja people in Mozambique or Malawi reveals fascinating links between past and present.


Meet the Buddhist guardian who's watched over the museum for 70 years.