After a long closure for rebuilding works, the Hunterian Museum of medical anatomy is reopening, and their redisplay is an eye-popping triumph.
A cluster of rooms telling the story of medicine from its earliest days right up to modern times, based largely on the collection started by the 18th-century surgeon and anatomist John Hunter, and added to over the centuries.
The museum redesign has cost £4.6 million and was part of a larger redevelopment of the Royal College of Surgeons of England’s headquarters at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The new museum space, which is now on the ground floor is made up of ten large rooms and a long gallery, so there’s a lot to see.
It is undeniably a museum full of objects, many may make you squirm in discomfort for that is the role of sharp scary looking medical tools, but it’s all been laid out so beautifully that you can almost spend more time just admiring the display than looking at the objects in detail.
This is particularly true of one long corridor lined on both sides with glowing shelves packed full of medical specimens in jars. It slightly reminds me of the Grant Museum’s Micrarium in the effect they’ve created.
The museum opens almost conventionally, with large glass cases filled with old objects and old paintings, to introduce John Hunter and his mania for collecting, then turn a corner, and the museum starts to show off one of its clever additions — in the form of interactive touchscreen displays.
Not the sort of small screens you see elsewhere, but table sized displays. If you’ve ever wanted to play Operation using a full-sized person, this is your chance.
A wall lined with what looks to be modern art is actually lined with the “Evelyn Tables”, made in 1640 and are the oldest surviving anatomical preparations of their kind. Cleverly, there’s a tactile miniature next to them which may be aimed at people with vision difficulties, but is still very touchable for everyone.
It’s not long before you’re into the specimens zone, and this is the visual heart of the museum, with rooms lined with glass jars, and their magnificent long gallery.
These used to be in a wall of freestanding shelves in the old museum, but the simple decision to put them along walls, with solid backs makes the objects so much easier to study without the visual clutter in the background as before. And while these are medical items, some human, undeniably, they are beautiful rooms to visit.
All around the museum, there are fascinatingly squeamish objects on show, from the human penis injected with dye to show blood vessels, to the two-headed cow, to the cancer samples, and a long row of fetuses in jars looking not unlike a scene from The X-Files.
Less gory are objects such as the prosthetic shoe worn by Lord Byron to correct a twisted foot, lots of paintings of the great and good, a black face mask that turns out to be for training optical surgeons.
They popped sheep’s eyes into the mask’s eye holes to learn with. Opps, we’re back to being squeamish again.
The display is also sensibly candid about how some of the science was advanced in ways that sounded sensible at the time, is laughable today, but had serious repercussions in between — such as Hunter’s belief that the shape of the human face conveyed what sort of morals the person would hold. That resulted in racist theories about Africans being inferior to Europeans because their faces were “wrong”.
For all the objects on display, do take time to play with the digital screens, as a lot of thought has gone into making them fun to play with as well as informative. And as with most old medical documents, while they are showing bits of the body we’d rather not see so exposed, the pictures are so wonderfully drawn.
The museum is roughly chronologically laid out, so you move from leaches and tourniquets into modern science, through the discoveries of anaesthetics and antiseptics. And display wise, the museum itself gets visually brighter, moving from Georgian stuffiness into clinical brightness.
The exhibition ends with films about people who have undergone recent surgeries, including a woman who had a heart transplant. Her original heart is on display in front of the video wall — which is both partly amazing, and partly gruesome, but mainly a nod to how the museum is still collecting specimens for future generations to study.
It’s a remarkable and atmospheric redisplay of the museum. They’ve taken away the rather clinical 1960s appearance of the old museum, and added a dose of atmosphere to the displays, but crucially, not lost the science or the sense of wonder that you get when visiting.
Museum redisplays are often accused of dumbing down, but I doubt anyone will be able to accuse the Hunterian of doing that here. Partly because they’ve pitched the information at teenagers upwards, but mainly because they’ve treated the space with the respect that the human remains deserve and displayed the objects with a professional eye to how they can be studied.
It’s a big display, some 2,000 objects are here, so it can be a bit much to take in on one visit. However, as it’s free to visit, it’s going to be easy to dip in when in the area and soak up the atmosphere and learn fresh things on each visit.
A much missed old friend of a museum has returned and is looking good.
The Hunterian Museum reopens on Tuesday 16th May, at the Royal College of Surgeons of England, Lincoln’s Inn Field.
It will be open Tuesday to Saturday: 10am to 5pm, last entry at 4:30pm, and is free to visit.
In a change from the previous museum, they now allow (respectful) photography of the displays.