Hunterian Museum: from syphilitic skulls to human foetuses, London’s creepiest museum reopens after six years
“Live every moment,” says the woman next to me, as we stare into the softly lit display case in front of us. Inside it, we are looking at a real human heart. It is her heart.
Welcome, then, to the newly reopened Hunterian Museum, free to enter, where nothing is in its right place.
Jennifer Sutton’s heart in a jar is probably one of the least mad exhibits in this fantastic and fantastical collection of organs, body parts and bones in glass jars and cabinets. There are skulls, lips, teeth, tongues, throats, stomachs, intestines, testes, penises, and ovaries in varying states of health. Those are just the human bits. Expect to see also elephant brains, infected boar skulls, dissected eels, sea mice, electric rays, and parts of a minke whale bought whole from a West London pub.
Bought by whom? John Hunter, the 18th century surgeon and anatomist who gives this museum its name is behind many of the over 2,000 specimens that make up this dense, intense collection. That, somewhat sadly, is only a fraction of what he accrued – a Second World War bomb blasted three quarters of the Museum’s collection into dust.
The Hunterian has been closed for the past six years while the Royal College of Surgeons, which houses the museum off Lincoln’s Inn Fields, underwent an almost total metamorphosis (only the listed 19th century façade of the building remains). The spirit of change has spread to the Hunterian’s collection too, and not before time.
No more, for example, will the skeleton of Charles Byrne, a seven foot seven giant, be on public display. Rightly so, given that, no doubt tired of being an object of curiosity in life, he asked to be buried at sea, before his friends unscrupulously sold his body to Hunter for the then enormous sum of £500.
Now exhibits are contextualised, with signs explaining that much of what Hunter did was not particularly ethical by today’s standards – and how some of his theories and work later led people down intellectual cul-de-sacs that were unacceptably racist.
Such signs aren’t in your face, though. What is in your face, quite literally at some points, is an entire wall of countless mind-boggling specimens. In over an hour and a half I felt I had seen only a fraction. At points the new design verges on the claustrophobic, as the exhibits practically mob you.
But what exhibits they are. It is an awe-inspiring and morbidly fascinating collection. You look on things which were never meant to see the light of day: the horrifying throat of a turtle complete with fleshy, protruding spines; a dizzying collection of human foetuses (some just at 9 weeks’ growth); spines bent almost in two by tuberculosis; a seemingly endless array of tumours, cancers, and bone growths; syphilitic skulls, and sundry body parts floating in preservative. It’s not one for the very squeamish. As for children, whether the creepy fascination is worth the night terrors that may well follow is probably a matter for parents.
The museum is now arranged chronologically, the chief effect of which is to make you thank the heavens you were born now and not at any other time in history. It’s a big nope to Romans operating on patients with hacking bronze tools, and a nope to surgeons drilling through skulls to relieve pressure on the brain. So the last rooms, which show the cleaner, more effective wonder of modern medical science are a relief.
You marvel at the progress made in so short a time. Men like John Hunter – ghoulish, gory, and unafraid – undoubtedly played a big role in driving that progress. It is hard not to admire them.
Just as it’s hard not to admire the sunny Sutton, who is visiting for the press preview and says seeing her old heart (which was replaced in 2007) is “like seeing an old friend”. Does she harbour resentment to it, given it nearly killed her? Sutton sees the positive side: “No not at all – it kept me alive for 22 years”.
Perhaps her enthusiasm is infectious. Part of me wanted to hate the museum in which her heart is now housed. It is by turns sick-making, overstuffed, and crazy, but I left entranced and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. I know I’ll be going back.
The Hunterian Museum reopens to the public on May 16; hunterianmuseum.org