A Morbidly Beautiful Visit to the Hunterian Museum

IMG_0839While on a small solo day trip to London last week I decided to visit the Hunterian Museum, a small museum that boasts an unrivaled collection of anatomical specimens and surgical instruments. It is definitely not everybody’s cup of tea. Looking at animal and human parts in jars is definitely not most people’s idea of an afternoon out but I loved it.Ā I have always been a bit of a morbid person, with a strange fascination around anatomy that I have never actually followed up by studying any scientific subjects, so the Hunterian Museum was a perfect place for me to be morbidly curious and learn some facts about the human body at the same time.

The museum itself is very tucked away, hidden within the Royal College of Surgeons with very little signage to tell you that it is there or what it is about and when I entered I was immediately struck buy how beautiful the displays actually are. Hundreds and hundreds of formaldehyde-filled jars line the two-floor space, creatively back lit so to create an almost ethereal glow. I think that many people would remark that the displays have a certain beauty about them….until they take a closer look at the contents of the containers. If you are at all squeamish then the Hunterian is not the place for you; skulls and skeletons stand alongside reproductive organs, historical surgical instruments and disembodied limbs. The collection originated with surgeon and anatomist John Hunter which, under his direction, grew to include nearly 14,000 preparations of more than 500 species of plants and animals. The man had a wide-reaching reputation during his career and even received a rare kangaroo specimen from Captain Cook’s voyage of 1768-71.

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‘Liver Transplant’ 1991. Roy Calne.

The government bought Hunter’s collection in 1799, after the surgeon’s death a few years prior and still owns around 3,500 of Hunter’s original specimens, also having added thousands of objects in the centuries since. The museum and its collections were badly damaged by the Second World War, when the building suffered substantial bomb damage on the night of May 10 1941. Some of the museum was completely lost while other parts were considerably damaged by the resulting fires, both of which had a devastating effect on the collection overall. The museum did survive and has continued on to this day, now housing a small display dedicated to the Second World War and its effect on the collection and staff that worked there.

I was lucky enough to catch ‘Surgeons at Work: The Art of the Operation’, and art exhibition which will be on display in the museum until September 19th. Recognizing the long standing relationship between surgery and art, the small exhibition shows artworks taken from the Royal College of Surgeons museum and library collection. Spanning almost five centuries, a variety of artworks are displayed that depict representations of surgeons and surgeries from across the eras. I felt that it added a nice, personal touch to the collections – which do seem very depersonalized and clinical – and allow the visitor to see human faces behind the scientific message of the collections.

A small museum but extremely interesting, I found the Hunterian Museum to be a lovely little gem hidden away in central London that anybody should visit if they have an hour of their day to spare. It is impossible to read every jar and label in one visit so I will definitely be a repeat visitor!

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