Hunterian Museum - London

The Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons is a fascinating place.  It's quirky, educational and like many medical museums, slightly ghoulish. Located on Lincoln Inn Field in the heart of the legal quarter of London, the museum is right across the square from one of my favorite places, the Sir John Soane Museum, another quirky gem. The Hunterian is a museum of anatomy, located in the College of Surgeons building. The ticket desk is often manned by retired surgeons who are happy to tell you about the collection. However, I highly recommend the audio headset which did a good job of guiding me through the collections, explaining the specimen jars, the surgical instruments and the portraits. Overall the visit gives you an excellent overview of the development and professionalization of surgery from the barber-surgeons through the practice of micro-surgeries today.


Because the museum is free and so well located you can just drop in quickly while you're visiting the surrounding Inns of Court. The entire area around the Hunterian is very picturesque as you can see from the photos above. It's right in the center of London but somewhat hidden away, though I highly recommend seeking out this neighborhood.
The collection includes various sets of surgical instruments and when you think of how rudimentary pain management was, they are rather chilling. I particularly liked the ivory anatomy models below with the removable innards.
Much of the collection is made up of an extraordinary number of specimen jars, beautifully displayed in well lit glass cabinets. It's almost overwhelming at first.
There are the most incredible number of creatures preserved here as you can see below. On the website they describe them as "human and non-human anatomical and pathological specimens". The original collection of over 3,000 specimens was assembled by the surgeon and anatomist John Hunter and was bought by the state in 1799. Later collections were added and it was open to public view, however damage to the building during the Second World War meant the museum had to be reconstructed and it didn't reopen until 1963.
As a non-medical visitor I didn't grasp the full import of the specimin collections but the audio guide provided a good introduction and who could resist seeing Winston Churchill's false teeth and Charles Babbage's Brain?!! 
At the rear of the museum are a series of portraits focusing on physical difference including people of different sizes and races as you can see above and below. 
Disturbingly the collection also included the  seven foot seven inch skeleton of Charles Byrne the so called "Irish Giant" who was exhibited as a freak in the late eighteenth century. Byrne went to his death greatly concerned that he would be exhibited in perpetuity and apparently paid to be buried at sea. Unfortunately his "friends" betrayed him and soldhis skeletal remains. Despite his explicit wishes, he remains on public display at the Hunterian. As an anthropologist I was greatly disturbed by this, it is unacceptable in this day and age. This skeleton serves no educational purpose and the museum could easily display a cast model instead. I couldn't help thinking how far we've come with regard to the remains of native   peoples in American collections and how far we still have to go for this poor Irishman.
I love an obscure museum and it's even better when it's free. So, next time you're in London why not try something completely different and drop by the Hunterian. It would be wonderful in combination with the Wellcome Collection on the Euston Road which, "explores the connections between medicine, life and art in the past, present and future." The Wellcome has been on my list for ages and was highly recommended by friend who is a medical anthropologist , ohh well it will just have to wait till our next London sojourn. 

Additional Resources: In addition to the Hunterian and the Wellcome, there are a number of addition medical sites and museums you can visit in London including the Old Operating Theatre, the Freud Museum and the Royal Pharmaceutical Museum. You can find lots more information here, including links to maps and self guided walks on Florence Nightingale and the history of anesthesia among other topics.
I love quirky, offbeat museums and have blogged about quite a few over the years. In London there are a number of unusual places including the Museum of Curiosities, and 575 Wandsworth Road, in Lisbon I was fascinated by the Pharmacy Museum and in Rome  who could resist the Mario Praz or a whole range of macabre sights.