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Last Chance to See: The Hunterian Museum

Last Chance to See: The Hunterian Museum

26 April 2017 Belphoebe New

Believe us when we say that Holborn’s Hunterian Museum, hidden away in the grandiose Royal College of Surgeons, fulfills all of your weird museum requirements. The laboratory of one of surgery’s most innovative minds, it’s full of skeletal structures, bizarre specimens and anatomical parts - perfect for the insatiably curious but perhaps less so for the faint hearted. On 20 May 2017, the Hunterian Museum will close for renovations for three years, promising to return in 2020 with a new space for world-class education, examination and research communities. We delve back in to the museum’s history and exhibits to discover why you should pay a visit before it closes its doors.

The Hunterian Museum has an oddly secretive air to it. It’s not widely known or publicised, due to the fact that the Royal College’s exterior doesn’t exactly advertise itself. Once you arrive you collect your access lanyard at the desk, walking up the main stairway past portraits of the college’s most significant figures staring down at you. The museum itself is stacked closely together with glass cases, filled with various oddities that loom above you. Photographs are strictly forbidden, and you might just be sharing the room with a few medical students and artists sketching, a faint humming sound and the beeps of what sounds like a hospital machine in the background.
 
Looking at exhibits of floating dismembered human body parts and the insides of animals might seem like an odd way to spend an afternoon, but the museum represents the surgical innovation and extensive personal collection of something of an eccentric genius. The approximately 3,500 objects on display were collected by John Hunter, a prominent doctor, surgeon and teacher in the 18th century. Hunter is an important figure in the history of surgery, innovating research into venereal diseases and the treatment of gunshot wounds and overseeing thousands of dissections in his lifetime. The museum first came into being in the 1800s, and was originally a resource exclusively for medical students before being gradually opened up to the rest of the public. In the period that Hunter was active, surgery was incredibly dangerous, painful and a last resort for those suffering. We have Hunter’s innovations and research to thank for the progression of scientific surgery as we know it today, and much of his work was inspired by the artifacts collected here. Throughout his career Hunter accumulated thousands of objects related to his work, as well as many donations, which make up the bulk of the Hunterian Museum’s exhibits.


 
The museum demonstrates Hunter’s meticulous approach to preservation. Comprising thousands of objects, this is merely a part of Hunter’s collection, some of which was also auctioned off at the time of his death – his most precious items however, remain in the museum. For medical students or scientists, it’s a clinical and scientific exploration of anatomical processes of the body, whilst for outsiders; it is a bizarre collection of oddities.  There’s the typical subjects of dissection, frogs delicately opened up to reveal their intestines, as well as kangaroo’s fetuses at various stages of development, the deformed tusk of an African elephant, the forefoot of a duckbilled platypus, the spiral valve of a toy fish and the digestive system of a sea urchin – and that’s just a taster. From plants through to human body parts, all remnants of life are here.



There’s an insight into the effect of diseases and deformities on the body, including the skull of a man suffering from Hydrocephalus, which is enlarged and jutting out prominently on one side. A whole section is dedicated to what the museum describes as ‘morbid anatomies’, including, most bizarrely, a cockerel’s head with human teeth embedded inside it, and a maggot buried in the skin of a reindeer. In the centre of all of this, it’s difficult to miss the museum’s most famous exhibit, the skeleton of Charles Byrne, who reached over 7’7’ tall and was known as the Irish Giant. It’s one of the more controversial exhibits in the museum, due to speculation as to how it was sourced and whether it should remain in the public eye, so its future at the exhibition is perhaps uncertain. Whilst there are many blatant examples of the extraordinary propensities of the body, sometimes it’s the museum’s subtler exhibits that seem to be the most interesting, parts that seem so tiny and delicate that you can barely believe that they were instruments of the body at all. The stomach lining of a squid is so miniscule it looks like eyelashes and the graying section of a pregnant woman’s uterus looks strangely incorporeal. It feels strangely intrusive to stare at some of the specimens, with the line of human fetuses from the very early stages to after birth being particularly unsettling viewing, but looked at from a clinical and scientific perspective, these exhibits are important studies for surgery students even now.
 
Closing its doors on May 20th, London will temporarily lose one of its most curious, eccentric spaces. In this city we’re always looking for something weird, wonderful and different, and the Hunterian Museum has always existed as one of the city’s hidden gems. You’ll leave with hopefully a new understanding and awe for the complexities of our bodies and others, something that John Hunter worked tirelessly to understand in his time.
 
The Hunterian Museum is at Royal College of Surgeons of 35-43 Lincoln's Inn Fields, London WC2A 3PE. It is open until 20 May 2017, and entrance is free. Find out more here.
 
 

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