The Bell Pettigrew Museum is open

Which is the oldest museum you’ve ever been to? Have you ever been inside a teaching museum? The University of St Andrews has an active teaching museum: its natural history museum. The Bell Pettigrew Museum was opened in 1912 and still houses a vast collection of specimens and instruments. The museum has been a teaching museum since Edwardian times, and students and staff can still visit to observe the artefacts. The museum is also open for public visits over the summer, Autumn and Spring holidays. 

A skeleton of a camel besides a display of scientific instruments © Sharon Pisani

James Bell Pettigrew was a Professor of Anatomy at the University of St Andrews and was a pioneer of early flying machines. His seminal work, Animal Locomotion: or Walking, Swimming and Flying, influenced future naturalists and informed his invention of an early flying machine. He died in 1908, and it was actually his wife, Elsie Gray, who founded the Bell Pettigrew Museum after his death. James Bell Pettigrew served as curator of the University’s natural history collection which was moved into this museum after it was completed.

Mosaic floors welcome visitors to the museum © Sharon Pisani

Located in the quaint St Mary’s Quad, the whole building is rather special. Upon entering, I stepped onto the mosaic floors which welcomed me and gave me a sense of being in another world, unlike any other building in St Andrews. Through the interior wooden doors, mounted heads of deer, elk, and other herbivores make up the first striking grand display. I immediately felt like I had gone back in time to the early twentieth century as I walked amongst the museum’s traditional displays and cases.

The collection is vast; there are fossils, skeletons, and embalmed animals, but also scientific instruments, drawings, and photographs. The sheer level of organisation of such a collection is striking. Floor-to-ceiling cabinets are full of specimens, neatly labelled, and sorted according to their place in the animal kingdom. Many of the specimens are of Victorian origin, some in their original jars with handwritten labels, adding to the historical charm of the place.

Displays in the museum showing skeletons and stuffed deer, herbivores, and fish © Sharon Pisani

One can easily spend hours observing the collection, but for those a little bit tighter on time, the Smartify app includes two fifteen-minute audio tours, one highlighting extinct animals, and the other about animals of Scotland. I listened to the latter one, and as I stood in front of the animals and learnt about them, I couldn’t help but remember other times when I had seen these animals during my time in Scotland.

I remembered the windy day in June when I had taken the ferry to the Isle of May and gazed in wonder at the hundreds of Atlantic Puffins standing on the cliffs. I spotted many diving off the rocks and feeding on a variety of herring and fish, sometimes indulging in five or six at one go.

I remembered the cold, rainy day, when driven by a desire to get into the Christmas spirit, I took the bus to the Scottish Deer Centre where a Christmas market was being organised. Nothing could make me feel like I’d stepped into a Christmas card more than watching deer, elks, and reindeers, animals which are not native in my home country. Amongst the other animals, I spotted the Scottish Wildcat, unafraid of the rain as it perched above its shelter in its enclosure. Definitely not the scary wildcat the Victorians had taxidermized and preserved in front of my eyes.

Hearing about the grey seal, my memories harkened back to the time I visited the island of North Uist, and whilst on Berneray, drove to the Seal Viewing Point, where I saw around twenty grey and common seals, lounging on the coast, observing the day going by and waiting for the tide to come up and refresh them.

Seals on the isle of Berneray, North Uist © Sharon Pisani

I heard about the European Badger and recalled a memory of riding my bicycle home after a night out with friends. Passing by the Lade Braes, I heard a loud scurrying sound, before a shadow crossed the road, hit my bike’s front wheel with considerable force, and crossed on into the darkness of the woods. The shock from this strange encounter lasted longer than the encounter itself, but despite not seeing the animal properly, I can still recollect seeing the distinctive black and white stripes flash before my eyes. I had seen my first ever badger in the wild.

Listening about more animals and seeing them on the display, I was excited to think about what other adventures I will go on to have in Scotland and what stories I will remember in some distant day in the future. Museums can truly bring their collections alive, not just through the exhibition, but through the memories that are awakened in the visitor’s mind. And what better stories to remember, than those involving our time with people, our interactions with animals, and our place living in nature. See what memories come alive at Bell Pettigrew Museum and share your own stories through #TalesOfScotland on social media!

The Bell Pettigrew Museum is open over the Autumn holidays from 10th – 21st October, Monday to Friday from 13:00-17:00. The audio tours can be accessed through the following links or by downloading the Smartify app.

Smartify | Bell Pettigrew Animals of Scotland Tour

Written by Sharon Pisani, Visitor Services Facilitator and PHD student in the School of Computer Science of the University of St Andrews