October 19, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Hunterian Museum
The Royal College of Surgeons of England, 35-43 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London
Permanent exhibition

Is the collection at the Hunterian Museum a Twenty-First Century freak show?

Visitors meander around a darkened room filled with illuminated glass jars from floor to ceiling. Pointed fingers and gasps of surprise and shock punctuate the silence. Inside each of the glass vessels is a preserved anatomical specimen: some appear normal, others grossly distorted, through injury or congenital abnormality. In the corner, a volunteer rings a postcard through the till. This isn’t a shop of horrors – this is the Hunterian Museum.

Based on the life, work and collection of John Hunter (1728-1793), a surgeon practicing in London during the 18th century, the objects contained within the Royal College of Surgeons were purchased by the government in 1799 and have been displayed in various incarnations of the museum ever since.

John Hunter was the brother of fellow anatomist William Hunter, from who he learnt his surgical skills. Setting up his own anatomy school in London in 1764, he was one of over a hundred other surgeons advertising their services in anatomical instruction. Hunter used his collection to show students conditions that would benefit from surgical intervention, based on comparison of healthy and morbid structures. His museum was originally only open to medical practitioners, members of London’s learned societies and ‘foreigners of distinction’, establishing itself as a place of study rather than a public attraction, in contrast to other biological collections such as Ashton Lever’s ‘Holophusikon’, which charged admission to visitors in Leicester Square, London.

The collection as it stands today is a mere fraction of its original breadth and depth – bombing during the Second World War decimated the museum’s collection. However the museum has lost none of its impact.

Entering the exhibition space is a daunting experience. The main room is accessed by a narrow space between wall-to-wall display cabinets, invoking the feeling of entering a cabinet of curiosity. Using Hunter’s original classification system, small, aged labels line the shelves by the hundreds, forcing viewers to draw closer and react to the specimens rather than read a large information panel from a distance.

Two skeletons stand in a prominent position within the Hunterian Museum in a spot lit case at the rear of the main room. The empty skull of Charles Byrne, an ‘Irish Giant’ who died in 1783 looks longingly at the exit; Mr. Jeffs, who suffered from a chronic inflammatory disease of the axial skeleton, has been positioned facing the wall to highlight his ankylosed vertebrae. They are positioned and lit in a way to highlight their abnormal qualities: the visitor has to look up to the skull of Byrne and the eerie shadows cast by his skeleton. Mr Jeffs’ deformed vertebral column is at eye level and close to the glass producing an interface for inspection of his anatomy.

But what is the purpose of the Hunterian Collection? Throughout the exhibition, we are constantly reminded that these specimens aren’t just for show but instead served a worthy educational purpose in the training of surgeons. As a Twenty-First Century visitor, it is hard to tell whether this is still true. Instead, the sheer scale of the collection of, at times, disturbing objects produce a sense of unease in the viewer, unsure whether to be fascinated or appalled.

Image: flickr | Rooney