Photo: Henry Legg
Photo: Henry Legg

The Museum of the University of St Andrews (MUSA) is a fascinating, though sometimes whacky, conglomerate of artefacts relating to the University past and present. With 35,520 visitors in 2013, the museum has established itself as a somewhat hidden gem in its five years of existence.

Joanna Rodgers, the senior visitor services facilitator, began volunteering at MUSA while studying as an undergraduate at St Andrews. Now studying for a part-time master’s degree in modern history, Joanna is thankful to have found such an interesting and convenient job right on her doorstep.

She said: “I think the history of the University is such a major part of what people enjoy about the University and why people choose to come here. And I think it’s also really important as a focal point for visitors to the University as well.

“Research can sometimes seem a little bit opaque and I think it’s great to have a venue and a series of events which allow people who maybe aren’t academics to access it a little bit more.”

MUSA is home to four exhibition spaces. The first documents the early history of the University, the second explores student life, and the third looks at inventions and the learning experience, with sections dedicated to science, the arts and divinity. Following this, the fourth gallery is a temporary exhibition space. Currently, this houses an exhibition on graduation. From September, however, this will change to a showcase of the study of medicine in St Andrews.

“The primary aim of the museum is to bring the University’s collections to a wider audience and to tell both prospective students, students, their parents and visitors about the University,” continued Joanna.

“And then within that we have all of these wider events to engage people in that main primary aim.”

MUSA is not just a static museum. With a full list available on MUSA’s website, a whole host of events are run throughout the year ranging from comedy nights to crafts workshops to children’s ‘animal magic’ days.

“So we do everything from a walk around the town telling you about different things in the University all the way through to things like that children’s event.”

“We do such a lot of good work in the community as well, kids love coming here, it’s a nice place to go with your family, it’s a nice place to go to look out over the ocean as well.”

With a rooftop viewing point, the museum boasts gorgeous views over the North Sea. With free entrance – though of course donations are always welcome – it is almost worth paying a visit for the scenery alone, especially on a nice day.

But the contents inside are in many ways just as impressive. Joanna’s favourite pieces are the ancient maces; which were the central items in a previous exhibition displaying university maces from around Europe. The St Andrews maces, she tells me, were some of the first objects accumulated by the University in 1419 – they were even prioritised over books or buildings.

“The maces are there to symbolise the power and so they’re really important. All the European universities that were in existence at the time like Paris and Boulogne already had their maces. So the first thing that the University did was commission a mace.”

A delegate was sent to Paris to buy books and the mace. However, “when he got there he realised the mace was going to be more expensive so they said don’t bother about the books, as long you bring back the mace. So it is one of the things that we are really proud of here at MUSA.”

These might be the most impressive items in the collection, “but we have a few hidden treasures as well.”

Among these is a miniature replica of the Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens, donated to University Hall by former rector and author JM Barrie. Another is a letter written to the principal by JRR. Tolkein in 1939, when he came to St Andrews for the Andrew Lang lectures still run by the School of English today. According to Joanna, its contents are important, “looking at the intellectual basis of fairy stories of the type which later became The Lord of the Rings.

“So it’s things that you wouldn’t expect to find here that I find most interesting.”

MUSA is just one of the exhibition spaces owned by the University. The Gateway Galleries provide more temporary exhibition space, while the Bell Pedigree museum in St Mary’s Quad is home to a zoological museum.

“And we also have our collections store. MUSA displays a lot of artefacts that the University has accumulated but it is only a small fraction. I think the number of objects we have in the University Museum and Collections Unit is 112,000. So it’s a lot. We also do tours of the collections in there.”

Joanna’s enthusiasm for the job is evident. For the history, for the place, for the people; she would fully encourage anyone with an in interest in the University’s history to get involved.

“It’s so easy, it’s right on your doorstep and there are so many amazing opportunities to get involved. We currently have five volunteers and they’re all students and then we also have casual staff and most of them are students as well.”

MUSA has firm links with the University, offering two highly contested traineeships to student on the Museums and Galleries postgraduate master’s course each year.

“One is a learning and access traineeship so that’s a lot to do with outreach for museums and how to get people interested and educated about what it is that we do here – working a lot with the children but also adults. And the other one is a collections traineeship which is to do with hands on experience with working with the collections. So that’s another good link with the University, we literally take on students.”

MUSA is a fantastic facility both for the University and the community. With a clean, modern space and passionate, motivated staff, it is well worth a visit.

 

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