Medical museums are not for the faint hearted. If the idea of seeing skeletons or human body parts floating in formaldehyde repulses then these museums are to be avoided at all cost. Personally I find these places fascinating. In a society where death and dying are taboo subjects and even the bodies of family members tend to be dealt with in hospital rather than at home, we rarely see death other than on a television screen.
Surgeons’ Hall Museums is made up of the ‘Wohl Pathology Museum’, the ‘History of Surgery Museum’ and the ‘Dental Collection’. The museum has recently undergone a £4 million transformation, closing its doors for 18 months and reopening in September 2015. This revamp has really made a difference.
When you walk into the ‘History of Surgery Museum’ one of the first thing your eyes are inevitably drawn to is a skeleton hanging in what looks at first like a grandfather clock. On closer inspection it turns out to be an early gift to the museum from a member of the Royal College of Surgeons at the time. This sums up what a lot of the museum experience here is like; recognising an item, going in for a closed look and realising it is not all what it seems. The colour scheme seem to have changed too, they have cleverly selected a rich navy colour, which helps to create a formal environment without being too sterile and hospital like.
The most noticeable innovation that has occurred in this area is the ‘Anatomical Theatre’. Located in the centre of the room and visible from the second floor gallery, the semi-circular raised seating is arranged in the style of a Victorian dissection theatre, with the focus on a body displayed on a dissection slab. Don’t worry it’s not a real body, instead it is a clear plastic, which is projected onto from beneath. A film that runs every 15 minutes or so, goes through an early 7 day story of a dissection and as the story runs the stages described are projected onto the body, so you witness from the first cut, to the revealing of the skeleton.
Heading upstairs to the gallery that overlooks the theatre, the focus shifts to techniques and technology. I’m relieved that they have refreshed some of their basic interactives and not everything is on digital screens. You can have a go at tying a surgeons knot and clamping open a chest cavity. I think one of my favourite displays here was a tray of ‘foreign bodies that have been retrieved from the nose’ – truly there are enough items on display that you could see something new each visit.
Controlling Infection ©Surgeons’ Hall Museums
The upper gallery of the Wohl Pathology Museum was the next stop. Think lots and lots of jars with bit of bodies floating in. The more you look the more you see. The specimens are all labelled clearly, the wet specimens all look like they have been recently re-spirited and by displaying them behind a single protective strip of perspex along a shelf, rather than putting them in cabinets, they appear even closer to the visitor.
This upper gallery was closed off to the public on my previous visit, but now it has been opened up it has been divided into sections in keeping with the original layout, that cover topics from general surgery and plastic surgery to more specialist areas, such as otolaryngology to neurosurgery. Each section has an interactive screen which explains the specialist area and also gives the option of watching real dissections related to the subject. This obviously could be upsetting, but at the same time it is refreshing that the museum has not shied away from the real life of surgery and dissection and has actually shown these things rather than just discussing them. It is the first time I have seen footage of human dissections and I presume this will be the case for many of the visitors.
The Wohl Pathology Museum ©Surgeons’ Hall Museums
The lower floor continues much the same, but with items in themed cabinets and a corner that covers surgery art. There is a very moving video that covers the double amputation of a soldiers legs after being caught in an explosion, as well as an ‘Anatomy Exploration Centre’ – a digital screen that allows you to see different elements of the human anatomy. Overall the audio visual elements and interactives, which have obviously been incorporated as part of the revamp, are really successful in increasing the visitors understanding of human anatomy and the processes used in surgery and dissection.
I miss one thing from the pre-refurbished museum. Previously on entering you were given a ticket that appeared to replicate tickets from the museum when it first opened; all swirly writing with a little image of the museum. It gave the impression you were being handed a ticket to go back in time, your own little bit of history to take home with you as a memento. Alas you’re now just given a receipt that is spat out by a modern touch screen till. Sometimes it’s the little quirks that make a difference.
Vitruvian Man ©Surgeons’ Hall Museums
Medical Museums as a rule do not tend to allow photography. It is considered a way of treating the deceased individuals whose remains are on display, with respect. If you want to see what the museum looks like after its reopening, this BBC new article can show you more. Or if you want to see more examples of wet specimens, check out my earlier post of the Icelandic Phallological Museum, where they have examples of many animals ‘parts’ preserved in this manner.
I would like to thank Surgeons’ Hall Museums at The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh for kindly supplying the images used in this blog.