diamond geezer

 Monday, May 22, 2023

Visit It: Hunterian Museum
Location: Lincoln's Inn Fields, WC2A 3PE [map]
Open: 10am-5pm (closed Sunday and Monday)
Admission: free
Website: hunterianmuseum.org
Socials: [Facebook] [Twitter] [Instagram]
Five word summary: surgical stuff and pickle jars
Time to allow: a good hour

London's had a Hunterian Museum for over 200 years, initially (and mainly) for the benefit of medical professionals. It grew out of the enormous collection of John Hunter, a Scottish surgeon who ran an anatomy school in Leicester Square during the second half of the 18th century. He believed medicine worked best when based on empirical observation, i.e. think before you hack, and over his career amassed more than 10,000 specimens of humans and other animals. After his death these were acquired by the Royal College of Surgeons as the basis of a museum within their classical HQ off Lincoln's Inn fields. It's been revamped many times, closing most recently in 2017 for a major refit and reopening just last week in a smaller, smarter format. If you're not squeamish prepare to come face to face with a lot of flesh in jars.

The building is so imposing you could easily think you're not allowed in, despite the poster on the front wall saying 'free entry'. The lobby looks every inch the home of an age-old professional body but trust your instincts, follow proffered directions and you'll find the entrance to the museum just behind reception. If you've been before you'll soon spot that the museum space is a lot smaller (and darker) than it used to be, indeed the entire upper level must now be offices, but when most of your exhibits are bodypart-sized there's still plenty of room to cram thousands in.

We start off in the world of early medicine with primitive implements including a Roman rectal speculum and a dental clamp from Pompeii. On the wall are 17th century wooden boards depicting (lifesize) blood circulation, and plenty of reminders that surgery was once dangerous, painful and liable only to make matters worse. A colourful interactive projection table takes centre stage, and I would love to have found out more about 14th century dentistry but no matter how much I jiggled my hand over and around the sensor ("Are you still there?") nothing happened.

John Hunter merits a gallery or two, where we discover that he learnt his trade at his elder brother's anatomy school, kept a menagerie of exotic animals at his London home and accumulated many of his specimens by what we would now consider dubious means. One of these was the body of Charles Byrne, a 7½-footer known as the Irish Giant, despite his deathbed plea to be buried at sea instead. Byrne's skeleton remained on display in the museum right up to the latest refit, since when they've decided it'd be more moral to keep it behind the scenes.

Then comes the best bit, the room with the jars. It's not usually this empty, I just got in at the very start of the day. Within these capsules of sparkling formaldehyde are body parts aplenty, perhaps most hauntingly a set of human foetuses with a range of ages from recently conceived to almost born. Animals are well represented too, for example the oesophagus of a giant tortoise, not to mention a yearsworth of house sparrows caught by John to demonstrate that their testicles increase in size during the breeding season. One end of the gallery focuses on anatomy and physiology, i.e. normality, whereas the pathology end depicts disease and deformity in all its forms. Yes that's how bad a toe with corns can get, yes that's what syphilis can do to your nether regions and yes that's a 4kg salivary tumour successfully removed from a rigger's neck.

The museum continues beyond Hunter's collection into subsequent surgical casework and innovations. Anaesthetic transformed the profession, for example, but initially led to even more patients dying from bacterial infection. Also I would beg to claim it's not every museum that contains Winston Churchill's dentures, the Bishop of Durham's rectum and the left hemisphere of Charles Babbage's brain. The penultimate room is a jolt into the 20th century and the last features big screen footage of ankle surgery plus a selection of interviews with modern surgeons and their patients. Even if you can't get to the museum you can watch all of these in the Digital Hunterian online - I found Liz's breast surgery turnabout very affecting.

And yes after Room 10 you exit via the gift shop, although it's a very small collection including a lot of copies of not many books. Due to poor labelling I suspect the cashier spends most of their time explaining which button to press to open the final door and return to the main lobby. Expect to walk out seeing certain things differently, having learnt (just as John Hunter's students did) that our bodies are complex and fantastical things.

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