There is no doubt about the exceptional contribution university museums make to the quality and impact of academic research; to teaching and the student experience; to the profile of universities nationally and internationally; and to their economic and social role as visitor attractions and cultural destinations. Wardlaw Museum, which is run by the University of St Andrews, delivers all this and more and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed my visit.
The museum is surrounded by university buildings on calm leafy streets, so you already get a sense of the university experience before walking through the door.
The museum – formerly known as Musa (the Museum of the University of St Andrews) – closed in 2018 for a £2.1m overhaul. The plan was to deliver 50% more space, re-imagined displays in four themed galleries, a new temporary exhibition area and a remodelled entrance area and shop. It had been on target to reopen in April 2020, but the Covid pandemic put paid to that.
The Wardlaw quietly opened its doors last summer without the usual fanfare that accompanies the unveiling of such a major redevelopment because of the restrictions at the time. But visitors are now returning in healthy numbers and the museum boasts a 100% satisfaction rate in visitor feedback.
From papal beginnings
In 1413, bishop Henry Wardlaw and King James I of Scotland secured approval from the Pope to create the University of St Andrews in what was then a small coastal town. The museum’s first gallery tells this story of the founding of Scotland’s earliest university, using a range of objects to convey the grandeur of the time.
A rich colour scheme and clever lighting add to this feeling, but it is balanced and made human with objects that add a sense of humour and fun. Watching students and their families in the space I see their pride at being part of this story. Students and staff are one of the main target audiences, so these displays hit the mark.
First impressions matter n each of the four galleries. The Enquiring Minds section explores teaching and learning at the university and your initial line of sight is drawn to a display of microscope slides, lit from behind, that are both beautiful and fascinating.
After 21 years of working in museums, I have to admit to a bit of label fatigue, but that is blown away in this space. Strange and intriguing objects make me curious and, without realising, I read all the carefully distilled labels. These give just the right amount of information and dispel my preconceptions of long-winded academic labels in university museums.
Interactives designed to entertain and reinforce the learning experience illustrate the points being made clearly and are well used by visitors. Touching of certain objects is encouraged and despite my new-found fear of this due to Covid, I can’t resist running my hand over a large fossil – with a scoosh of hand sanitiser after.
Centre of innovation
Leading on from Enquiring Minds is the Reformers and Innovators gallery, which highlights a few key people and some major discoveries and inventions developed at the university. From the leading protestant of the Scottish Reformation, John Knox, to Nobel Prize winner James Black, who in 1988 developed beta blockers (medication to normalise or slow down the beating of the heart), it is clear that the impact of the university is global and has contributed to our daily lives.
The next section, Encountering Cultures, explores a selection of objects from the university’s world cultures collection and asks what it means to be human. This section sensitively approaches the provenance of such objects and asks for feedback on how they are displayed and interpreted. I spent time discussing this section with the head of experience and engagement, Matthew Sheard, who told me that this is just the start of the journey as over the next year the museum will carry out research with university staff and source communities into the origins of the objects.
There will be an initial exhibition called Recollecting Empire to share findings and conduct further consultation with communities. This project will be supported by PhD research into the colonial context and will be an interesting example of collections-focused scholarship being used to build links with source communities. Tackling institutional legacies and working towards a more inclusive and equitable future is a priority for the team and will take time.
The four semi-permanent galleries are supported by a temporary exhibition space that changes three times a year. When I visited the exhibition was Dive In: Protecting Our Ocean (now finished), which had been planned to coincide with last year’s Cop 26 climate change conference in Glasgow. The exhibition highlighted the university’s work to tackle climate change and its impact on the world’s oceans.
The exhibition unashamedly asked visitors to consider their own impact on the planet and to change their behaviour. It did this without being preachy and provided various ideas on how to take action. Objects, text, illustrations, models, film, music and art were all packed into this small exhibition, which was an excellent example of museums using collections to engage people in the subject. The museum also has a research studio where staff and students can experiment with ideas.
The bright Learning Loft is used for events and community engagement and is a place where families can be creative together. Sheard and the team are working on developing the offer for people with younger children.
Lastly, a visit to the terrace is a treat, with its views across St Andrews Bay. It gives me the chance to reflect on what I have seen and the breathtaking location of the ancient university. On the way out I pass the well-stocked shop and the friendly front-of-house staff point me in the direction of the North Point cafe for a cup of tea and a very large raspberry and coconut scone. It’s where Prince William and Kate Middleton used to have coffee after they met here when they were students (I had to!).
This small museum shares its unique stories through beautifully displayed and well-interpreted objects.Its displays are accessible and bustling with life and energy, reflecting the demographics the museum represents. It is current, relevant, visually stunning and opens up the university and its traditions to visitors.
Most importantly, like the university it is part of, the museum attempts to make a difference through the ideas it puts forward. I thoroughly recommend a visit.
Rhona Corbett is the programming and collections manager for Culture Perth and Kinross, and a Museums Association rep