Where in the coastal University town of St. Andrews can you come face to face with a zebra? Be transported back in time to the Edwardian period? Have your curiosity well and truly piqued? One unique space promises each of these experiences: The Bell Pettigrew Museum of Natural History. Open only on occasion, but free when it is, the museum has an atmosphere like no other.
A rare surviving example of an Edwardian teaching museum, the Bell Pettigrew never fails to fascinate visitors of all ages. The museum houses a number of unique specimens: an extinct St. Kilda House Mouse, Tasmanian wolf; even a specimen of the endangered gangetic dolphin (given this name as a result of the river in which it lives) brought to St. Andrews in dramatic circumstances by the naturalist William Carmichael M’Intosh (involving a coffin shaped box spilling blood on Piccadilly Circus from the roof of a London cab)...This is just a small sample of the fascinating stories shared by both the specimens in the collection and those that brought them here.
This collection of natural history specimens has long been housed within these walls. Although a museum of the Literary and Philosophical Society of St. Andrews had existed previously in a different location within the University of St. Andrews, the Bell Pettigrew Museum came into its own in 1912, on a donation to the University by a Mrs. Elsie Bell Pettigrew. An independently wealthy woman, Elsie’s husband James Bell Pettigrew was a renowned naturalist and Professor of Natural History at the University, and upon his death, donated a significant sum of money to the University on the condition it fund a museum in his memory. Elsie was intimately involved in the design of the museum; picking out the intricate mosaic floor tiling, and insisting the cabinets for the museum came from the company Sage and Co., who were best known for supplying the cabinets at Harrods.
Today, a question then arises for visitors: how does a museum, with the original Edwardian fixtures and fittings, function in the 21st century? The museum today has a dual function: to act as a teaching museum and a public venue for events. As Sir David Attenborough said, “Packed full of treasures and wonders, the Bell Pettigrew is a spectacular reminder of how important a museum can be in the study of the natural sciences.” The museum is not even exclusively used to teach sciences: it fascinates and is utilised by teachers and students of the arts alike as well as school groups. The displays facilitate the teaching of biology to students in the University. All specimens are labelled, with more scientific interpretation available on larger interpretation panels, for those wishing to broaden their scientific knowledge.
The museum is only open to the public on specific occasions; largely during the public events run by the Museums of the University of St. Andrews. Admission, whenever permitted, is free. Although one can also visit by prior arrangement, it does require a level of planning before making the trip. During the summer months, the museum is often open a few days a week. It’s advisable to check the website for the most up-to-date visitor information. It should also be noted that the museum is located in an historic building. To this end, the museums service have an access statement available on their website, with a detailed explanation of the accessibility of the building. The museums service invites people to make them aware of any specific access requirements, in order that a visit to the museum is comfortable and enjoyable. The museum itself has a large, central area with plenty seating; giving the visitor sufficient space for a moment’s rest and reflection.
As a public venue, the Bell Pettigrew plays host to a variety of events for a wide range of audiences; from night-time concerts, to arts and crafts and creative writing workshops. With these outlets, the museum aims to provide a space for creative expression for people from all walks of life. I would suggest that it is through these reimaginings of the space that this museum is brought into the present.
Davies, Heather and Smith, Carl, The Bell Pettigrew Museum of Natural History: A history and guide to the collection, https://synergy.st-andrews.ac.uk/bellpet/files/2014/02/BPMGuide1.pdf.Elsie Bell Pettigrew, Letter 09/03/1908, University of St Andrews Special Collections.