Saved by the Bell


As part of their MlLitt. degree, Museum and Gallery Studies students have been taking a walk on the wild side to explore the scientific and social history of one of the University’s best kept secrets.

The glamour of the 600th anniversary celebrations surrounding us makes for a perfect moment to glance back 100 years, to when the university commemorated its quincentenary. The 500th anniversary was celebrated in style, running a week full of events attended by the crème de la crème of society, including the heads of European universities and stately figures (but, alas, not members of the Royal family).

Not only was it a week of refined academic discourse, it was also a week of joyous revelling – one needs only to glance at the plenitude of toasts on the original Banquet Menu for the Students’ and Graduates’ Dinner to see that St Andrews students were no strangers to joie de vivre 100 years ago. A reporter’s account from The Times describes the students’ torchlight procession held during the celebratory week: “they (had) a wild Viking appearance and wore fantastic dress that would have looked quite at home at a fancy dress ball of Chelsea art students” (September 13, 1911).

The following day, September 14, marked the official birthday of a new institution at the university – the Bell Pettigrew Museum of Natural History. The museum’s predecessor was the museum of the Literary and Philosophical Society (a 19th century learned gentlemen circle in St Andrews) in the University’s Upper College Hall. In accordance with Victorian tastes, it housed, amongst other things, some of nature’s deformities, including a cyclopic piglet. The Bell Pettigrew Museum still holds some of these Victorian curiosities, although usually hidden behind the scenes in the Museum Stores. They have now been spruced up, dusted down and brought on stage for an exhibition at the Gateway Galleries.

With the new building opening in 1911, the Museum not only got a new name and location (original Bute Building, where you can still find it now), but also newly-organised collections, concentrating mainly on zoology, but displaying also anthropological and geological items.

Now reaching a prominent 100-year jubilee, the Bell Pettigrew Museum is far from obsolete and decrepit. Its collections continue to grow and are incorporated in various international projects, such as the cloning of an extinct species. The exhibition at the Gateway aims to let all students experience the Museum’s and University’s kaleidoscopic history, with both its quirks and groundbreaking scientific discoveries, a little bit like New Scientist meets Overheard in St Andrews 100 years ago.

Still Life: 100 Years of the Bell Pettigrew Museum of Natural History, is showing at the Gateway Galleries, North Haugh, from 17th March to 19th May. Mon-Fri 9am-4pm; Sat 12 noon-4pm. The venue has a café, and is wheelchair-friendly.


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