Good news, as London’s Hunterian Museum, named after the 18th-century surgeon and anatomist, John Hunter, has confirmed that it will reopen in March 2023 following a five-year redevelopment of the Royal College of Surgeons of England’s headquarters at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in central London.
The free medical museum includes England’s largest public display of human anatomy and used to be on an upper floor of the RCS’s building, but following the redevelopment will now be based on the ground floor, where it will be much easier and more obvious to visit.
The museum had been expected to reopen in late 2021, but the redevelopment of the building and reinstallation of the museum was unsurprisingly delayed by the pandemic. The £4.6 million museum development includes the display of over 2,000 anatomical preparations from Hunter’s original collection, alongside instruments, equipment, models, paintings and archive material, which trace the history of surgery from ancient times to the latest robot-assisted operations.
However, when it reopens, the museum will not include the skeleton of Charles Byrne, known as the Irish Giant. He died in 1783 and it has been said that to prevent his body from being seized by anatomists he wanted to be buried at sea. However, Hunter paid Byrne’s friends to hand over Byrne’s body, and three years later Hunter displayed Byrne’s skeleton in his Leicester Square museum, and part of it is shown in the background of the portrait of Hunter by Sir Joshua Reynolds.
Despite his own wish for burial at sea, his skeleton has been on display ever since, but the museum has rightly decided that’s no longer appropriate. A portrait of John Hunter by Sir Joshua Reynolds shows the giant skeleton in the background, and that portrait will be on public display in the new museum for the first time in over two hundred years.
The exact date the museum will reopen is to be confirmed, but after a long absence, this March will see one of London’s much missed museums welcoming visitors once again.
Dawn Kemp, Director of Museums and Special Collections at the Royal College of Surgeons of England, said: “The Hunterian Museum is one of the very few places in the UK where the public are able to see specimens prepared specifically to show human anatomy. Under the Human Tissue Act it is only possible to publicly display human remains known to be more than 100 years old. The history of surgery is dramatic and often unsettling with stories of terrible human suffering. Yet historic medical collections, like the Hunterian, are also incredibly valuable in giving us a better understanding of our own health and wellbeing and the complex issues that have arisen in the development of the art and science of surgery”.