As a student at the University of St Andrews, you are made very aware of the unique sense of history which permeates the town. Walking through narrow cobbled streets to classes in historic buildings is certainly a good indication of the ancient character of the University, but as a history student I have always been eager to learn more about what has been one of the most important centres of education in Scotland since the 15th century.
For that reason, I was delighted at the opportunity to volunteer at MUSA. Giving up a couple of hours a week to help with the front of house team is a great way to get out of the library and also provides great experience of working in a professional environment. Above all, it gives me the chance to wander around the museum and take a look at some of the fascinating collections on display.
The items in Gallery 1 I find particularly interesting. The three ceremonial maces, all of which date from the 15th century, are one of the most impressive exhibits in the whole museum. The most striking, St Salvator’s, was commissioned for the college of St Salvator by its founder, Bishop James Kennedy, in 1461. The Canon Law mace dates from a similar period while the Arts mace is oldest, constructed in 1416. These items are still in use for graduation ceremonies.
There are a great many exhibits which are have lots of local interest, such as the magnificent oil painting, Wishart’s Last Exhortation, painted by Sir William Quiller Orchardson in 1853 which serves as a fine reminder of the town’s distinguished cohort of Protestant martyrs. George Wishart was a Protestant reformer and scholar who was imprisoned in St Andrews castle and executed there in 1546. The painting depicts Wishart’s last breakfast with the Captain of the castle which, when he blessed the bread and wine, became the first Protestant Communion in Scotland.
One of the perks of being on the team at MUSA has been getting the opportunity to look around the Museum Collections Centre, where items that are not on display at any of the University’s museums or galleries are stored, and was supported by the MGS Recognition Fund. It was surprising to see the vast number of objects – from paintings to scientific instruments to ceremonial robes – which could not be accommodated in MUSA or elsewhere. From these you get a great idea of what it would’ve been like to be a St Andrews student in the past, although the best place for that is certainly Gallery 2 in the museum, which has an excellent collection of objects relating to student life from the earliest times to the present day.
It is useful to know about the items in the collections as well as the history of the University in general because visitors often ask questions about topics such as these. Though admittedly, the most common questions seem to be on the subject of where the nearest place to get a coffee is. I can answer those ones too.