A Victorian Natural History CollectionSep 15, 2006 by
Today I visited the Bell Pettigrew Museum of Natural History for the first time, and jolly interesting it was too.
It's a Victorian museum of Natural History within the School of Biology at St. Andrews University, and while it has moved premises (in Edwardian times) and been updated in parts, it does have a distinctly different feel from other museums I've visited recently, including the Natural History Museum in London and the Royal Museum in Chambers Street, Edinburgh. In part this is due to obvious differences in scale, but there's also a different focus to the Bell Pettigrew that I haven't come across elsewhere.
Although people living in or around St. Andrews now probably know about the Bell Pettigrew, it's a pretty well kept secret; I never knew about it in my time as a student in the 1980s, and have only become aware of it in the last couple of years. Although it used to be open to the public - and apparently drew hundreds of visitors a day in its hey-day - it closed in the early 1970s, and has only recently re-opened to the public while the students are away during the summer. If you fancy visiting next year (today was this years last opening day), it's open on Tuesday and Friday afternoons from 2 'til 5.
What the museum has in common with others is the wide range of deceased specimens on display in large cases around the walls; however, where it departs from the practice of most modern museums is in having not only stuffed and mummified beasts, or their skeletons, but also bottled specimens and dissections. It certainly shows its lineage as a part of the University.
Modern tastes are more squeamish about such things, and it's difficult to imagine a contemporary museum - even ones with Victorian pedigrees like the ones I mentioned earlier - making a virtue of displaying dissected or bottled creatures, rather than a diagram, a computer graphic or a physical model. If I'm honest, I'm quite glad. The idea of killing and cutting up animals to put them on display seems a bit ghoulish (not quite sure what I think about Gunther von Hagens and plastination), and of course any modern collection that attempted this would be opening itself up to the possibility of public protest, or at least distaste.
However, having said that, I'm glad the Bell Pettigrew collection is preserved, and I'm glad it's on public display, because it's informative in more than the usual ways. It gives us a glimpse of our forebears subtly different sensibilities in a way that's not within the usual remit of a natural history collection; and purely in its own field, it shows a level of detail of the way living beings are made that those of us who have never really studied squishy science are unfamiliar with. You really do get a different (and more humbling) impression from seeing the exposed nervous system of a frog than you would from a diagram.
There's scope for
humananimal interest stories too; I was peculiarly impressed by the skeleton of Bassey the carthorse, who pulled the stone used to build the Bell Rock lighthouse. For a horse who died in 1818 to be known by name, with details of his career and retirement, is oddly touching. Apparently part of the Bell Rock was also named after him by Robert Stevenson (builder of the Bell Rock and many other engineering projects, and grandfather of RLS).
Other highlights included the thylacine (Tasmanian tiger), the St. Kilda house mouse, the dodo bones, the duckmole (better known to us these days as the duck-billed platypus)and a cast of the skull of a Phorusrhacos (about the size of a laundry basket!).
I was slightly disappointed not to find any mention of the longest animal in the world (a worm over 150' long, found on the beach in St. Andrews in 1874), nor to see more about the secretive mechanical flapping flight experiments that were inspired in the early 1900s by the study of flight in nature, especially since some of the apparatus seems to have survived at least until the middle of the 20th century.
Although the whole museum is in a single room, it took me a couple of hours to work my way around it, and I was able to buy a mug with dinosaur silhouette timelines for the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous. What more could you ask for? Recommended.