Friday, February 26, 2010
You might have guessed by now that I have a thing for London's secrets, the darker the better. Much of it is inaccessible, whether it be ghost stations on the underground, or long-deceased railways to transport the dead. Not all of it though. My favourite London museum is little-known, teeming with macabre artefacts and brimful with stories.
It's mainly the private collection of one man, John Hunter, a remarkable character who many view as the father of modern day surgery. He spent a life collecting body parts. 14,000 in total. All dissected, studied, then pickled in formaldehyde, and now on view to the public, though from experience most of those walking around tend to be medical students, art students looking for a visceral sketch or too, or crime writers.
You cannot help but gawp in a sort of ghastly awe at the exhibits. A tiny human foot floats free, belonging to a child who died of smallpox, the disease that killed thousands of people in 18th century Britain. The child it belonged to is long forgotten, and you hope that its foot, preserved for the ages, helped to understand and finally eradicate that terrible virus.
Alongside jars and the skeletons are models and sculptures that tell the story of the early years of modern surgery (his death mask is also part of the collection, and is one of the creepiest things there.) The most gruesome of which is a wax model of a man, fully awake, his left cheek opened up to reveal a tumour, while two disembodied hands work at it with a saw. At first you think, 'That's just a gross bit of sculpture' until you learn that the artist created the work while watching a man undergo that very surgical experience, without the benefit of anaesthetic, his face stern but calm.
Hunter had a brother William with a similarly morbid collection, on view at the University of Glasgow. There, the museum is available for hire, so you can enjoy your wedding reception surrounded by pickled embryos, dissected wombs and preserved penises, which should at least cut down on the cost of the buffet.
Dan - Friday
at 9:28 AM