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#205 Hunterian Museum

February 17, 2011

This monday saw us at the Hunterian Museum, spending Valentine’s Day surrounded by literal broken hearts. For the Hunterian is a museum of medical history and anatomy. If this makes you think morbid freakshow, you’re wrong. It’s much worse than that.

The Hunterian, biding its time until Guy Ritchie films a carriage chase scene in front of it.

Based in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, that eerily quiet lawyer-village tucked behind Holborn, the Hunterian is one of those small London museums you always promise yourself you’ll get round to visiting. Despite a chic new makeover, there’s something impossibly grotesque about the place, because it’s a modern museum based on a 200-year-old collection of medical curiosities kept around because they were, frankly, cool.

Baby Cthulhu, I choose you!

We’re talking preserved animals displaying copious guts. A baby Cthulhu. Tumours of any size you can imagine, and then a bit bigger. 18th-century portraits of extremely short, fat or unusually-shaped people (most of whom, to be fair, had an attitude of ‘check me out’ rather than ‘leave me alone’.) Foetuses by the score. Grim, functional machines to keep heart patients alive. Half a child’s face, preserved in formaldehyde and delicately rouged to look like it did in life. Monkey heads in jars. As much as I wanted to be all modern and flip about it, my stomach did a few revolutions along the way.

All skulls were oddly toothless, lending them an old-man air. Sup, gramps.

Gut-wrenching as all this may be, it’s presented in a light and uncomplicated fashion – well-captioned, clear and informative. And you have to appreciate that the underlying narrative of science dragging us (often literally kicking and screaming) into the light of a longer-lived, painless day is a powerful one.

The skeleton of the world's tallest man, next to the skeleton of the world's most impressed man.

Our late-night event was enlivened by appalling limericks posted by some of the exhibits, the chance to make your own plasticine organ to store in a jar, and a talk about that most Valentine’s of diseases, syphilis, by the eminent and eloquent Dr Guerrier. (Short version: don’t get syphilis – your arm will burst and you’ll turn into an unstoppable blood-bomb before you die. Shag safely, kids!)

What's this collection of malformed monstrosities? Oh, it's just plasticine models made and bottled for fun by visitors to the event. Cool.

It was a great collection of undemanding, entertaining items that, together with a clue trail, demonstrated why late night openings are the best way to see London’s museums right now. (And everyone’s at it, too – I’m sure we’ll be visiting some more evening museum events in the near future.)

If there was one thing I took away from the museum (apart from that pickled monkey head under my coat, heh), it was the positive, even jaunty tenor to the event and the displays. This can only mean what we’ve all suspected for years: that medical folk are all kinds of messed in the head. It begs the question: do Doctors evolve their famous sick sense of humour as a defence mechanism against the horrors they see every day… or is it just that only people with a sick sense of humour become doctors? Yeah. Straight into the face of the medical establishment. Citizen journalism, this is! Um.

There’s a virtual tour here too.

Hah, you almost had me fooled there! I thought that was a real monkey head in a... oh God. Oh God. They're real, aren't they. I just need to HEEERRPPBLEEURGGH

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