Providing insight into almost every crevice of human and animal anatomy, the Hunterian Museum educates its visitors by offering an alternative angle from which to view our bodies. Begining life as the collection of 18th century Scottish surgeon and Royal Society fellow John Hunter, who sought to better to understand the growth and adaptation of living creatures, this museum probes every curiosity of anatomy with its rows of dissections in jars, deformed skeletons and strange paintings.
The displayed items from his collection consist largely of pickled body parts and organs in jars - from both animal and human specimens - stacked onto shelves. But aside from the standard preserved toad or mouse that you might have seen in your high school biology class, the Hunterian Collection definitely ignites a more gruesome fascination with the study of anatomy, by displaying the often truly weird forms of the body. It is intriguing partly because of the unexpected selection of species and dissections: there is a huge variety from a swollen prostate to conjoined lambs to a preserved baby armadillo.
A sense of wonder for the complexities of our regular, everyday anatomy emerges from the Hunterian's miniature foetal skeleton, a series of animal foetuses in jars showing the development of life in the womb, and a separated, plasticised cardiovascular system, which appears like a human-shaped red spider web. The 7 foot 7 inch skeleton of the Irish 'giant' Charles Byrne towers opposite the museum entrance, defying belief, along with enlarged and diseased skulls that seem to probe the limits of the human body. And jarred dissected bodily systems expose areas of interest that you might not have previously considered, such as a cyst on the intestine of a whale, which is shown next to the digestive system of a slug for comparison.
Despite suffering massive bomb damage during the Second World War, the Hunterian Museum has been expanded by numerous curators over the years, so that the building now displays a collection that is larger and arguably more all-encompassing than Hunter's initial project. An extensive acquisition of odontological specimens forms a separate branch in itself, and there is space for a small gallery of artworks documenting unusual bodily ailments from the past two centuries. The curators have obviously strived for particularly coveted material. The giant Mr Byrne, a spectacle in his day, knew full well that the museum desired his skeleton - despite his wishes. The collection includes a few other celebrities, such as a cranial cast of writer Jonathan Swift, from which it is possible to calculate his brain volume, and Winston Churchill's dentures, formed especially so as to accommodate and maintain his distinctive lisp.
Taking John Hunter's talent for dissection as its inspiration, this collection knows how to present anatomy so as to intrigue, peeling back layers and focusing on all areas of the body. The Hunterian museum is a serious, impressive academic collection, but also a surprising look at the world around us that will interest everyone.
The Hunterian Museum collections have been brought together over four centuries by a cast of colourful characters including the surgeon and anatomist John Hunter (1728-1793). They are a fascinating mix of human and animal anatomy and pathology specimens, wax teaching models, surgical and dental instruments as well as paintings, drawings and sculpture.
Hunterian MuseumThe Royal College of Surgeons, 35-43 Lincoln's Inn Fields
London Greater London United Kingdom WC2A 3PE
The Hunterian Museum is open Tuesday to Saturday from 10am to 5pm. Admission is free and the museum is open to all.