Museums are boring. Boring. BORING.
How many times have I heard that? How often have I countered with, “But this museum is great … different … you’ll like it … trust me.”
Well, here I go again.
London’s twenty-one Health and Medicine museums are great, different, you’ll like them, trust me. I never would have thought it. Math and Science are not my thing, but the doubleganger and I had such a blast the last time we visited medical museums, we thought we would have another go. And so, we visited two more this week. We saw an exhibit on enemas, an original copy of Handel’s Messiah, tons of tumours, a Holbein, some syphilitic brains, some Hogarths, the skeleton of an Irish giant and films of modern keyhole surgery. Along the way, we encountered exhibits covering philanthropy, anatomy, biology, musicology, pathology, architecture, surgery, and art history. We saw a heart wrenching collection of mothers’ tokens left with abandoned babies (think of Oliver Twist) and a collection of medical specimens that is a virtual Noah’s Ark of our insides. We had a fine, entertaining day. In fact, we hadn’t had this much fun since the last time we did a tour of London’s medical museums.
The Foundling Museum
Our first port of call was the Foundling Museum on Brunswick Square in Bloomsbury on the former site of the Foundling Hospital, Britain’s first home for abandoned children. Back in the 1720’s, when babies littered the streets of London, Thomas Coram, a childless ship’s captain decided to do something about it and began a tireless campaign to establish a home for abandoned children. The techniques pioneered by Coram and the Foundling Hospital have become the playbook of modern philanthropy. George Frideric Handel performed fund raising concerts in the Chapel regularly (think of Live Aid) and William Hogarth persuaded the great artists of the day to donate work to the cause which could be viewed by the fashionable and wealthy who had come to inspect the children. In fact, it became so fashionable to attend fund raising events at the Hospital that at one Ladies Breakfast, the windows had to be nailed shut to prevent the ladies from sneaking in.
There are three reasons to visit this museum. First, it has a small but very good art collection with wonderful Hogarths, Gainsboroughs and Reynolds combined with several spectacular interiors from the original Hospital. Second, there is a strong collection of Handel memorabilia including an original copy of Handel’s Messiah which he left to the Hospital in his will. Most importantly, the exhibition “Coram’s Children” which focuses on the lives of the orphans who passed through the Hospital will touch your heart: the little bits of ribbon, jewellery and coins left by the mothers but never given to the children, the Infirmary Book entry “in a dying condition”, the orphans who sent back photos of themselves to the Hospital because it was the only family they ever knew. “Coram’s Children” is powerful social history, simultaneously depressing and uplifting and a very good thing for today’s children to see. The novel, The Coram Boy, by Jamila Gavin also brings the story to life for young readers (Eloise loved it) as well as the stage adaptation which has had two sell out runs at the National Theatre.
The Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons
From the Foundling Museum we walked over to Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London’s largest square and home to one of four surviving Inns of Court as well as the Sir John Soanes Museum and the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons.
The Hunterian Museum began as the private collection of the surgeon John Hunter (1728-1793) and was originally displayed in a private museum in Hunter’s house on Leicester Square. Today you enter the museum through the imposing portico of the Royal College of Surgeons where you are given a badge and directed to head up the stairs. We did not, choosing instead to wander around the ground floor where we came across Holbein’s painting of Henry VIII giving the Charter to the Barber-Surgeons. We also came across a weirdly entertaining exhibit on enemas and a bronze and marble Victorian monument holding the remains of Dr and Mrs Percy Macloghlin (well, no one knows for sure whose ashes are in there as Mrs Macloghlin is rumoured to have had an affair with the sculptor which may have affected her original intent).
After the Holbein, the enemas and the Macloghlins, we headed upstairs to the Hunterian. Wow, what an entrance, which consists of a dazzling atrium filled with floor to ceiling glass display cases holding over 3,000 specimens of animal and human anatomy and pathology. Needless to say, the pathological peculiarities were the most interesting, showing the anatomical impact of such diseases as tuberculosis, rabies, typhus and syphilis. Tumours, hernias, amputated stumps, two tailed lizards and Egyptian mummies all vied for our attention. Along with the specimens, and some stomach turning films of modern surgery, there is a small but worthwhile collection of paintings which include two terrific Stubbs depictions of a white rhino and a yak as well as engaging portraits of a perfectly formed aristocratic Polish dwarf and Chang and Eng, the co-joined twins from Siam.
Afterwards, being short on time, we retired to a convenient but uninteresting place for something to eat and a quick review of the day. We both agreed that once again, medical museums had exceeded our expectations offering so much more than you would think given that the topic is related to “boring” old science (my words, not Kate’s) but this is healthcare in its widest sense, encompassing a fascinating range of subjects. So fascinating, in fact, that we even agreed to go on with our romp through London’s medical museums. Four down, seventeen to go. Watch this space.
40 Brunswick Square
London WC1N 1AZ
Tel: 0207 841 3600
Open Tuesday to Saturday 10:00-6:00, Sunday 12:00-6:00
Tube: Russell Square
Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons
35-43 Lincoln’s Inn Fields
London WC2A 3PE
Tel: 0207 869 6560
Open Tuesday to Saturday 10:00-5:00
Closed public holidays and College closure days
Photo of painting of Captain Coram by William Hogarth