‘Delicious Decay’ at Barts Pathology Museum, London

If you ever get the opportunity to go to an event at Barts Pathology Museum in London, grab it by the body-parts (not the ones on display there – don’t touch those please).

I was lucky enough to get tickets to go to an evening entitled ‘Delicious Decay’, and an hour event the day after and honestly they were some of the most interesting museum events that I’ve ever attended.

Now going to a jolly fun talk about death is not everyone’s slice of cake, but I took along a partner in crime, my Grandma. Obsessed with death and all things macabre, she was the perfect companion for such a Hallowe’en weekend event.

Grandma and I rocked up on Friday evening at 18:30 ready to immerse ourselves in some pretty gruesomely interesting facts. Now I have been to a medical museum before (the Hunterian and Surgeons’ Hall Museums), I had an idea of what to expect, but Grandma had not and she was in her element; peering into jars, squawking excitedly when she correctly identified a pathology and muttering ‘how wonderful’ to each of the medical illustrations that she came across. Honestly, she’s the perfect medical museum companion. Barts itself is quite beautiful; a rectangular room, with a wrought iron spiral staircase up to higher balconies. The walls full of shelves and the shelves full of specimens.

We were handed a complimentary cocktail, an amazing amaretto and grapefruit number was the evening’s poison ( . . . I will get to that poison reference later I promise). We also peered into an open cast coffin containing the most amazing cake I’ve even seen. Called ‘Dahlia’ and hand crafted by the incredibly skilled Annabel de Vetten-Peterson of Conjurer’s Kitchen, we were informed that in tomorrow’s session we would be able to tuck in.

It’s a wonderful space to go to for a talk, with the lights dimmed we were surrounded by the collection while we listened to the three lectures of the evening. The first from Carla Valentine, the Technical Curator of Barts Pathology Museum. I managed not to gawp in complete heroine worship and thankfully Grandma kept her cool; having seen Carla performing a dissection of an obese individual on TV a few weeks earlier, I thought she was going to be star-struck and she’s not subtle.

Carla’s talk was on the relationships between death and food. How we moved from actually eating our dead as a method of absorbing their souls, to making dainty funerary biscuits, to the full on buffet that seems to be the practice for the modern wake. I’m well up for reverting back to fancy Victorian funerary biscuits, wrapped in paper and sealed with a black wax stamp, especially if there’s a quirky poem involved!

Next up was Dr Anna Williams, introducing the pros and cons of Taphonomy Research Facilities, probably more readily known as body farms. If you are still in the dark about what these are, in really basic terms body farms started up in America as a way to properly study and understand what happens to the human body after death. Human remains are left to the elements to allow for studying things like environmental factors, insects, pests and how different individual bodies react after death. It can help with forensic investigations by, for example, helping to give more accurate estimated times of death.

The UK does not currently have any Body Farms and none exist that reflect our climate, which ultimately means that our understanding and accuracy is falling well behind that of countries like America that have access to such important resources. We currently do have a kind of a body farm, but it is using ethically sourced pigs instead of humans; although pigs are a close second, they are not exactly like us.

What the UK needs is a body farm that has both pig and human remains simultaneously, which would give an understanding of if the reaction of pig remains is actually truly representative of humans – if it is then of course we could stop using humans. Few people actually know about body farms, let alone the arguments for and against them, which is a shame. Why should we not be given the option to donate our bodies to such a cause?

The cons against body farms tend to be those that are understandably squeamish, or those that worry that giving an alternative option of what to do with you human remains could result in a lack of organ donations to save the lives of living individuals. The Human Tissue Authority, who regulate the consent of the use of human remains are looking into getting a new ‘tick box’, allowing body farms to exist in this country. If this happens it may then be a matter of time, and a considerable amount of crowd sourcing from everyday people like me and my Grandma (and hopefully you) who support the project, to get the research off the ground. Overall a very interesting and exciting presentation.

Finally an informative giggle with Jamie Upton, who cheerfully informed us about the poisonous cocktails that we had been drinking. He discussed how much of the different cocktail ingredients that we would need to consume to cause death. Light-hearted and unbelievably interesting. It was like being in a real life episode of QI. Did you know that the centre of pineapples (in large quantities of course) can break down your digestive tract – stick to the pineapple rings kids! Or that apple pips contain arsenic. OR that if you happen to be at the supermarket with you Geiger counter (standard practice obvs) then you’ll be amazed by the high radiation readings from the Brazil nuts.

Well Grandma and I left with a skip in our step knowing that we were going to be heading back for even more information the next day! And we were not disappointed. We headed straight for a nibble of the delightful ‘Dahlia’. Being constructed of red velvet cake covered in marzipan she was not only delicious, but the more people ate the more she appeared to be going through a decomposition process.

We headed up to the higher balcony to see Dr Anna Williams, who had isolated 7 (of the over four hundred) smelling chemicals that are produced by decomposition. We were thus introduced to the scents of death. Number 1, Hexanal, smells like grass (Grandma added that it was more grass with a hint of dog poo – nice). Number 2, Indole, is not only present in dead bodies, but coffee, chocolate, lilies and a lot of perfumes . . . and isolated it really didn’t smell that bad. Number 3, Trimethylamine, was getting a little bit fishy, but then not all the population can smell it – both my Grandma and I struggled, but another girl in our group was completely repulsed. Propanoic acid was next and smelt sweaty. Then 2 methyloutanoic acid, which may have ruined parmesan for me for life. Butric acid is another foul one produced during active decay and smells like sick. Finally, butanol, which was a relief after the previous two, smelling like rotting leaves. By isolating these smells the hope is that cadaver dogs can become more accurately trained and sensitive to such odours in order to find human remains. So informative, interesting and interactive!

There were more deliciously poisonous cocktails to be had and INCREDIBLE edible human body parts to acquire from numerous amazingly talented cake makers. On top of that everyone was just bloody gorgeous; the team of volunteers were all friendly, helpful and really knowledgeable, the other visitors that we got chatting to were all such lovely people.

So we had an amazing museum visit, with interactive learning experiences, cake, cocktails and incredibly interesting facts. Put me on the order list for Carla Valentine’s book ‘Past mortem: Life and death behind mortuary doors’ (coming out in 2017) and sign me up for the next Barts Pathology Museum event!

‘Delicious Decay’ took place on the 28th and 29th October 2016. For more events at Barts Pathology Museum keep a look out here.

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