The Hunterian Museum, London

Stepping into the glass case surrounded central alcove of the Hunterian Museum is spine tingling, and not just because you can actually see some articulated spines on display. Having heard that the museum will be closing for three years of redevelopment I felt the need for a pilgrimage.

As with all medical museums it is not a place for the squeamish or those of a delicate constitution. Housing examples of disease and deformity it is a space that can really emphasise how incredibly our bodies are constructed and adapted, as well as what happens when there is a fault in the system.

As I look up at the brightly lit cases filled with wet specimens and bones, the empty sockets of huge elephant and horned beasts skulls peer lifelessly down in my general direction and I can understand how people find it morbid. My friend described it as ‘like cases full of freaky sci-fi lab experiments that look like they have gone wrong’. The reality of this statement is that it emphasises how little the vast majority of people understand about what the parts of their body that hide out beneath their skin look like, both normally or when disease or trauma strike. This is why medical museums are so important, there are not many other environments that the public can see such examples in the actual flesh, or without as it may if we are thinking more skeletal.

This place has the added interest of having both animal and human anatomy specimens displayed; so for example a conjoined skull of a human is displayed alongside that of a goat offering visual comparative anatomy. All the specimens are clearly labelled and easily matched to brief extra information.

Film footage of surgery gives a break from peering in cases at spirit specimens. It definitely attracted an audience, with each step in the process being clearly explained, thus emphasising the tools, reasons for their use and the skill needed to perform surgery. As were the surgical tools and art work.

One of the items on display has caused heated discussions; the skeletal remains of Charles Byrne. Known in the 1780’s as the ‘Irish Giant’, he was considered a curiosity, sadly by some a freak. It is said that celebrity drove him to drink and he sadly died at the young age of 22. His remains suggest he was around 7ft 7, which it is now realised was due to pituitary tumour. Interestingly it was only fairly recently that technological advances allowed analysis of the teeth that could indicate exactly that it was cause by a rare mutation in a specific gene. Some have claimed that Charles did not want his body displayed and requested a sea burial before his death, which has resulted in requests for his request to be fulfilled. On the other hand the Royal College of Surgeons, who care for the Hunterian Museum collection, believe that there is value of having his remains accessible for living and future communities. Currently the educational and research benefit merit their retention.

Hunterian Museum, London: Skulls showing syphilis pitting and a shelf of spirit specimens, quickly sketched

It is fair to say that the human remains on display are not there as freak shows; as with the vast majority of medical museums, photography is not permitted as a sign of respect for the remains on display (hence the lack of photographs in this post). However, you are allowed to sketch and every time I have visited there has been at least one person there diligently capturing the image of specimens the only fashioned way. I thought I should give it a go, and would definitely recommend it as a way of really looking closely at specific items.

If you are interested in other medical museums, have a look at my post about the Surgeons’ Hall Museums in Edinburgh, part of the Royal College of Surgeons Edinburgh headquarters. Or if you want a look around a medical museum here is some information from a really innovative virtual tour of Edinburgh Anatomical Museum.


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