After my fascinating trip to the newly opened Wellcome Collection (a hotchpotch of medical, scientific and sociological artefacts amassed by a prolific collector and allied exhibitions) earlier this month, I took myself off to the equally interesting Huntarian Museum, located behind the Royal College of Surgeons imposing 1813 portico in Lincoln’s Inn Fields (and opposite that other brilliant and eccentric London collection, also free, the Sir John Soan’s Museum). This institution is not to be confused with the Glasgow Huntarian Museum, which stems from William Hunter (John’s brother).
The collection was started by John Hunter, an important figure in the development of surgery in the 18th Century and contains literally hundreds of pickled specimens of all sorts (if you like that sort of thing, booking a tour of the Natural History Museum’s Darwin Centre is also a must, you can even see the Thames Shark in a big Damien Hirst sourced display case, seriously). Apart from these sometimes gruesome specimens, which include human organs, there are lots of skeletons, including that of a notorious convict who was hanged, and a large number of intricate and hauntingly delicate skeletons belonging to foetuses at varying stages of gestation, the twisted frame of a man suffering from a gruesome bone deformity and a tiny little woman (next to a painting of her in life), who’s bones looked disturbingly like one of the dead babies, and the frame of a 7’7 giant.
This might sound grim, but the light and modern galleries (re-opened in 2005 after a two year refit) dazzle you with the variety of humankind and animal life. We also get to see Churchill’s dentures and quite a few things of the sort contained in the Wellcome Collection, like horrible surgical implements and another picture of the 50 stone man. Then we have a delightfully bloody look at the science of surgery (with some interesting photographs and instruments from the First World War, where due to horrible circumstances many surgical advances were made. The photographs of those with facial injuries are difficult to look at), and a temporary exhibition entitled ‘A Visible Difference, Skin, Race and Identity 1720-1820’. This is mostly about piebaldism, a skin pigmentation disorder that causes black skinned people to have patches of white skin (most famously George Alexander, a slave’s child, whose portrait is owned by the NPG). This is a brief but interesting exhibition which makes us think a little bit about ourselves, though the whole museum made me question identity in a rather unconventional way. Just seeing those tiny skeletons was quite moving (seeing very early foetuses fully preserved at the Bodyworlds a few years ago and Bodies at Earl’s Court more recently didn’t have quite the same affect of those skeletons, they seemed more real than a plastic looking grey blob).
By chance after my visit to the museum, I happened to notice the blue plaque commemorating John Hunter in Soho, after which he moved and actually had his original museum, home and surgery/operating theatre in two separate houses backing on to each other in Leicester Square.
Having these free museums and collections, in addition to our beloved national museums and galleries, is such a wonderful opportunity for Londoners in particular. I only wish more people would take the chance to visit (they are not exactly on the tourist trail either, are they too challenging or individualistic for people to cope with? Do people really only want to see the greatest predictable hits at the National Gallery then have a Starbucks?)