There are some museums in London that I’ve just never managed to visit, some from preconceived ideas about whether I’m going to like them and others because there are just so many and other priorities take over. The Hunterian Museum falls under the latter, but I also think maybe a museum full of specimen jars felt a little like what I’ve seen before in various Natural History Museums so I haven’t been in a hurry to visit.
But from the moment I walked in I loved it. I loved the clean, bright, modern feel and spent ages just looking at the room. It’s far from the ‘cabinet of curiosities’ feel that many museums relating to the 18th Century choose. In place of dark wooden cabinets are sparkling cases filled with clean specimens.
The specimens all relate to dissections prepared by John Hunter, a Scottish surgeon who produced hundreds and hundreds of anatomical preparations, which he displayed in his property in Leicester Square that functioned as home, anatomy school and museum for his collection.
Some of the specimens are pretty gruesome, including animals dissected to show inner organs, human fetus’ at different stages of gestation and organs with various illnesses. But some are beautiful as well, such as a pipefish snake that spirals round its jar, and it was interesting to hear that John Hunter was able to show these preparations in polite society, even making some for King George III and his family.
Surgeons needed dead bodies to teach anatomy and to practice their own skills, but getting their hands on these wasn’t exactly legal. The police would turn a blind eye as body snatchers illegally brought dead bodies to the back entrance of John Hunter’s house in Leicester Square, greatly contrasting with the grand frontage onto the square, so its no surprise that this house has been suggested as the inspiration for the one in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
There are hundreds of interesting exhibits – half of Charles Babbage’s brain, Winston Churchill’s upper dentures and quintuplets from a premature birth in 1786. But it was the design of the museum that won me over and I look forward to going back as the sheer amount of interesting objects and information mean many more visits will be needed to take it all in.
Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons
35-43 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London WC2A 3PE
Tuesday to Saturday from 10am to 5pm