The Hunterian Museum, London

England’s largest public display of human anatomy has reopened after five years’ closure and a £4.6 million redevelopment. Carly Hilts visited to learn more about the new displays, and the complex story of medical advances and ethical questions that they explore.

Based in the Royal College of Surgeons of England in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, the Hunterian Museum takes its name from the 18th-century surgeon and anatomist John Hunter. His collection of more than 14,000 human and zoological specimens – mostly dissected and prepared by Hunter himself as learning aids for the anatomy school that he ran in Leicester Square – were bought by the Government after his death in 1793, to continue their use in medical education. Although two thirds were lost during a bomb strike in the Second World War, the surviving items form the heart of the Hunterian Museum – which has just reopened to the public following a £4.6 million transformation.

On entering the new space, visitors immediately encounter the eponymous anatomist himself, in the form of the famous portrait of Hunter by Joshua Reynolds, together with a striking selection of items amassed during his lifetime. Anatomical teaching models; historic surgical instruments; a human skull marked with syphilitic lesions; and a model nose mounted on spectacles (designed for sufferers of the same disease) jostle for attention alongside an entire box of mid-20th-century prosthetic eyes; a sloth foetus; the preserved brain of a female Asian elephant; and the skeletons of two dodo-like flightless birds called solitaires. The diversity of objects on view is absorbing, and a vivid illustration of Hunter’s eclectic interests.

The Hunterian Museum is centred on the eclectic collections of 18th-century anatomist John Hunter. It also explores surgical history from antiquity to   the present day.

From there, a larger room introduces visitors to the evolution of surgical theory, practices, and tools from antiquity through to Hunter’s day. These span a broad chronological and geographical sweep, including a trepanned skull and bronze surgical tools from the Roman period; a copy of an ancient Egyptian medical papyrus; displays about Greek humoral theory and the influential works produced by Islamic scholars between AD 800 and 1200; human bones splinted with palm wood and bandages, excavated from the Nubian Valley; and intricate miniature ivory anatomical models from 17th-century Germany. Adjacent to these, an entire wall is devoted to the extraordinary Evelyn Tables – the earliest anatomical preparations of their kind, created in 17th-century Padua, they comprise real human blood vessels and nerves that have been carefully dissected and mounted on wooden boards to create life-sized diagrams.

Complex questions

The next series of rooms delve deeper into Hunter’s life; his unconventional education; and his studies alongside his brother and fellow anatomist, William (who founded his own Hunterian Museum in Glasgow), aided by very effective audiovisual and interactive elements. Here the museum does not shy away from the shadier aspects of medical history – nor indeed of Hunter himself, who admitted employing body-snatchers to supply his school with a sufficient number of fresh cadavers, and whose sets of human skulls fed into racial theories that seem distinctly sinister to modern sensibilities. Other displays address the provenance of artefacts and specimens that were obtained through the mechanisms of colonialism, and consider questions of consent and exploitation in displaying medically ‘unusual’ human remains. While some of Hunter’s patients enthusiastically bequeathed him their excised tumours and amputated body parts, other individuals were certainly included in his collections against their will. The recent reorganisation reflects a more sensitive presentation of the Hunterian’s holdings, and a particularly significant example of this is that the remains of Charles Byrne are no longer on public display.

Due to an undiagnosed benign pituitary tumour, Byrne developed acromegaly and gigantism, growing to 7’7” (2.31m) in height. Towards the end of his life, he made a living exhibiting himself as the ‘Irish Giant’ but, fearful of anatomists seizing his body after his death, he reportedly begged his friends to bury him at sea. Hunter had other ideas, bribing those with access to Byrne’s remains so that he could put them on display in his museum in Leicester Square. Byrne’s skeleton subsequently remained a famous component of the Hunterian displays but, following the museum’s transformation, his remains have been removed from view out of respect for his wishes. Byrne may still not have been granted his sea burial, but his remains are now privately stored, only to be accessed by those carrying out genuine research into pituitary acromegaly and gigantism.

While a collection centred on medical specimens could be viewed as objectifying or othering its subjects, a powerful aspect of the new displays is the way in which the lives of Hunter’s patients are brought to the fore. Their images, their experiences, and their own words feature in highly personal and often poignant assemblages – accompanied by an interactive tool drawing on Hunter’s casebooks – which eloquently remind viewers of the human stories and human suffering behind many of the specimens within the museum.

Linking these early sections with rooms exploring modern medical advances is the Long Gallery – a glass-walled corridor running spine-like through the museum, with smaller rooms feeding off it. It is in this area that Hunter’s specimen collections really come into their own, its walls lined with glass jars presented almost like jewellers’ displays, containing human and animal ‘preparations’ representing almost any species, organ, or condition that you can imagine. For visitors who might find this distressing, be aware that one section of these displays does include human foetuses in various stages of development; others feature Hunter’s study of lizard tails and deer antler in order to investigate whether their regenerative powers might aid human medicine, and still more illustrate the desperate conditions faced by the 18th-century urban poor, with examples of bones and organs damaged by rickets, tuberculosis, syphilis, smallpox, rabies, typhus, and diphtheria. Within this area, interactive digital displays are again used to great effect, allowing visitors to explore specific aspects of the collections in greater detail, and to learn about topics from pathology and how anatomical specimens are prepared to how new species are named.

New frontiers

The final three galleries bring visitors through to the present day, tracing the evolution of what we might recognise as modern surgical practices, and the remarkable advances that have made techniques such as keyhole surgery and organ transplants possible. It was with great relief (and wincing sympathy for patients who had endured treatment in earlier times) that this reviewer dwelt on displays about the development of antiseptics, anaesthesia, more-effective pain relief, and the requirement for dentists to undertake formal training and qualifications (not until the later 19th century).

The 17th-century Evelyn Tables. Images: © Hufton + Crow

Explorations of how many medical advances were driven by necessity, thanks to the wreckage wrought on human bodies by increasingly mechanised wars, are particularly powerful – not least a section highlighting the pioneering plastic-surgery techniques innovated by Harold Gillies to reconstruct the faces of First and Second World War veterans. There, in a poignant link back to the objects displayed in the museum’s first gallery, we also find facial prosthetics mounted on to spectacle frames – highlighting how, while medical methods have advanced immeasurably in the two centuries since Hunter was practising, the basic human need for dignity remains the same.

Taken together, the museum’s new layout represents an arresting insight into human ingenuity – a fascinating overview of both the history of medical understanding and practices (and the triumphs and ethical issues accompanying these) and an exciting exploration of where further advances might lead us in the future. But it tells a powerful story, too, about the people who contributed to these advances, whether professionally or as patients. This is no coldly clinical scientific narrative, but one that is rich with human experiences and full of thought-provoking questions.

Further information: The Hunterian Museum is open 10am-5pm Tuesday to Saturday. Entry is free but timed tickets should be pre-booked; see www.hunterianmuseum.org for more details.