Friday, February 26, 2010

The World's Most Macabre Museum?

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.

The Hunterian Museum sits inside the imposing Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln's Inn Fields, which means it doesn't get much passing trade. I was told about it by a friend and first went to visit in 2005. You climb a few steps of the old building, and make your way in through an unassuming doorway. Then you're met with an amazing, creepy sight: row upon row of preserved human and animal organ specimens floating in jars, like the world's most gruesome pharmacy. It's like a cross between a Damien Hirst installation and the set of a horror movie. Ghoulish, ghostly but also weirdly beautiful.

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.

Things get more surreal and haunting the deeper you venture and the closer you look. There is a whole shelf of tongues belonging to different animals, whales, baboons and elephants, and the minute body of a dead infant sloth which looks like an alien. There are the sexual organs of a host of animals, many of which were provided by London Zoo, though Hunter had a menagerie of his own. He practically bankrupted his family in his desire to track down specimens for research.

Of course, the human body interested him most and in 18th century Britain people of his ilk were able to obtain the bodies of convicted felons for dissection and study. There was a great competition for these corpses (and of course, to meet demand, the likes of Burke and Hare would later provide the bodies of ordinary folk for those who didn't ask too many questions about the merchandise) and Hunter wasn't above a bit of chicanery. One of the exhibits is the skeleton of 7ft 8 inch Irish 'giant' Charles Byrne. He was a freak show spectacle, one of the foremost celebrities of the day. Because of his huge frame he knew surgeons across the land were queuing up to get their hands on his corpse and see what secrets it would yield. Byrne asked to be buried at sea in a lead coffin to thwart them. His plain failed; when he died, Hunter paid off the undertaker and got his prize. It's still a debate within the museum over whether Byrne's wishes should be honoured and his remains buried. For the moment, he remains an exhibit.

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.

There's also enough strange surgical contraptions to give David Cronenberg the conniptions. My favourite being the Clockwork Saw, which never made it past the prototype phase, mainly because it lacked precision, was difficult to control when wound and often ended up slicing and dicing the surgeon's assistant and not the patient. All major failings in a piece of medical equipment.

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


  1. Next time, I wont view the photos while eating lunch. Interesting museum, I think my son would love to go there and examine all the pieces.


  2. Hi Dan,

    this is one place I am certain to visit next time when I am in London. I saw the Bodies exibition a few years ago and was deeply disappointed because it was somehow so harmless and mundane. I think the numerous documentaries and science shows incorporating realistic 3-D modeling in their explanation of how we work have removed the novelty of seeing veins and muscles. What you describe above is another matter and a lot creepier - a floating hand has a lot more effect than one dipped in plastic along with the rest of the body.

    thanks for the heads up

  3. Dan - this one should have come with a warning. I didn't get beyond that glass jar.

  4. That Clockwork Saw would make a rather good pizza cutter, wouldn't it, Dan? Assuming, of course, that one doesn't get human parts mixed up in the pizza.

  5. Sorry if the pics are a bit strong folks (though I could have picked worse...) They sum up the exhibition though. And we mystery lovers have strong stomachs, don't we?

    Yrsa, make sure you do. You'll love it.

    Yes, Phil, it would. And I'm not sure a pizza decorated with sawn-off fingers can be worse than the ones you get from Dominos...

  6. Hi Dan,

    I thought that was very interesting, the photos didn't bother me, darn it!

    The Chicago Museum of Science and Industry has an exhibit of fetus'. There's several jars containing fetus' in various stages of development.

    It was pretty freaky sight when I was a kid.


  7. Dan!

    Now I know where you get your ideas from! :) I liked it! I still need to read Blood Atonement !
    Arnie Slater USA

  8. This is very intresting I think I will use this for my shcool asinment. Thanks for the insperation.

  9. Hi Dan, what a great entry! I was just wondering if I could use your picture of the giant's skeleton in a video I'm making for Visit Britain? I'd credit you and link back to the blog.