Up what feels like a contender for the narrowest flight of spiral stairs in London, you’ll find the wonderful world of the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret. Located in the loft of the 300 year old St Thomas’ church is the oldest surviving operating theatre in Europe, dating back to 1822.
This could just be one of my new favourite places in London. ‘Why?’ I hear you cry. Well, because it’s quirky and it’s incredibly different; it just doesn’t follow any of the golden rules that you’re told to follow with regards to museum interpretation . . . BUT, as if by magic, it still works.
What do I mean by the golden rules of interpretation? Well it’s pretty common to have some kind of introductory panel. This may have a hierarchy of text. If it’s in a family museums this is usually written to a younger reading age than you would expect, maybe to that of a six year-old. The text isn’t too long, ideally it’s concise and to the point; no rambling paragraphs with long words or specialist terms that may not be known by the layman. For each display there would be an introduction and then further smaller object labels, which may have extra information and are easily matched with the associated objects. All the information is found in similar places in each case, training a visitor to look in a certain space to get the information quickly. It’s all very clever . . . it’s a style repeated pretty much everywhere . . . which means it can get pretty boring pretty fast.
Entering the Herb Garret is quite a magical assault of the senses. Everywhere you look there are interesting things. The room, set in the rafters of the church, was used by apothecaries of the hospital to dry herbs for medicine since around 1703. There is a faint aroma of the herbs and spices that are hung up to dry. Although there are some items with discrete ‘please do not touch’ or ‘please do not photo’ signs, there are items like the bowls of herbs and wooden scales that you can interact with. It has the feel of a slightly untidy person’s workshop, and they have just popped out for a fag break, or to pick some more herbs to hang up in the rafters, or both.
Everywhere you look there are snippets of information and instead of set panels of interpretation you are handed an A4 introduction as you head in, which you can there refer to whenever you feel like. You’re then free to browse the hand written notes sat within the jars of herbs that inform what they were believed to help cure, or the randomly spaced typed up panels for things like recipes and patient hospital rules. YES, sometimes it was hard to find the interpretation, YES, hand written labels are harder to read than typed text BUT I loved it.
In amongst are pathological specimens, operating equipment and ledger notes on operations. Light shines through a variety of colourful medical jars on the window sills and there are cases with pill makers and medicine tins. This haphazard style of objects displayed on lots of different levels is wonderful because you could make multiple visits and see different things every time.
There are Museums Trails and a simple skeleton making activity that can be done too, providing a nod to basic interactives – the simplest are often the best.
The 1822 operating theatre itself is quite a contrast to the darkened garret. With a skylight that naturally lights the room it is a lot less cluttered, but the focus is very obviously on one thing; the operating table. This theatre will have mainly been used before antiseptic procedures were developed and being attached to the female ward, was for female patients (male patients were treated in a separate theatre which has not survived to the modern day). It’s certainly a striking room.
Obviously access is an issue, the narrow spiral staircase is excellently dramatic, but in no way caters for a disabled visitor. However the museum’s informative website indicates a hope that funding will be acquired and planning permission given to increase access, which hopefully will increase footfall because honestly this gem of a museum deserves a great deal of visitors.
If you’re a medical museum fan there are other places in London that you will love. If you get chance to go to an event at Bart’s Pathology Museum then grab it! The collection is incredible and the curator is not only knowledgeable and inspiring but lovely too! Although it is currently being refurbished, the Hunterian Museum is definitely worth visiting when it reopens. Further afield in Edinburgh there is the Surgeon’s Hall Museums, or you could explore the Edinburgh Anatomical Museum from the comfort of your own home thanks to the incredible 3D scanning project throughout the museum space.