I had been looking forward to this exhibition from the moment I first heard about it; a peek into the gruesome underworld of society suits me perfectly. On my way to the Museum of London I was full of excitement and anticipation, hoping it would live up to my expectations. And it did. Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men is a brilliantly informative exhibition crammed full of fascinating items.
The exhibition is based around some extraordinary finds made during an excavation, carried out in 2006 in the grounds of the Royal London Hospital, Whitechapel. "The London" used to have its own burial ground during the early 19th century, but somehow it slipped from memory. During the excavation 262 burials were found, many of which showed evidence of having been dissected. It would seem that "The London" pre-empted the 1832 Anatomy Act, allowing hospitals to use unclaimed bodies in anatomy lessons, by utilising the bodies of former patients.
Before this Act, the demand for bodies for dissection far outstripped the only legal supply: the bodies of executed criminals. The shortfall was made up for with illicitly acquired cadavers, courtesy of the resurrection men. At the beginning of the exhibition, there is a large map of London that highlights the four main hospitals at the time and the graveyards from which corpses regularly went missing. Seventeen private anatomy schools needed material to work with too; no wonder Londoners feared what would happen to their mortal remains. The first part of the exhibition focuses on the imbalance between supply and demand, and the reasonable fears people had about grave-robbing.
There are some very striking exhibits in this section, including an iron coffin specially designed to be impenetrable once closed. There is also a wooden dissecting table on display alongside a cotton apron. It looks splendidly creepy, like a "Chamber of Horrors" tableau. The most famous grave-robbers Burke and Hare make an appearance too, literally, in the form of a tiny piece of Burke's brain. The terror they inspired was compounded by the case of the "Italian Boy" – murdered to save his attackers the bother of actually digging up a grave. A short film narrates the story, and sends a shudder down the spine.
The next part of the exhibition focuses on the surgeons and their work. Bodies were needed for teaching and practice. Surgery was indescribably hideous before anaesthetic and antiseptic. By practising on cadavers a surgeon could improve his technique and hopefully mitigate some of the pain and danger. There are portraits of some famous surgeons here, including a print of my personal favourite John Hunter. There is also an array of fearsome tools, detailed textbooks, and specimens pickled in jars. The most striking exhibit, perhaps, is a skeleton of a boy from the mid-19th century. The boy's corpse was, unusually, donated by his parents for dissection, and is still perfectly preserved.
The third section has some of the finds from the excavation. They are cleverly arranged on five tables with viewing mirrors above them to improve visibility. It is amazing to see the bones with the clear dissection cuts. Some show evidence of having been articulated with wire and others are stained with dyes to show particular anatomical or physiological functions. Around the walls are photographs from the excavation. The information gleaned from these bones adds to the history of the hospital and medical history more generally.
After this a small area shows a film about the Anatomy Act: opinions were divided on the wisdom of the measures. By allowing doctors to use the bodies of those unclaimed, the burden could be assumed to fall upon the "friendless" poor. During the next 172 years those suspicions were proved right, with 99.5% of bodies coming from workhouses, asylums, and hospitals. The Act remained in force until 2004, I was shocked to learn.
The final part of the exhibition brings us up to the present, with digital imaging, CT scanning, and organ donation. There is a very thought-provoking film examining contemporary attitudes to our own bodies and what happens to them after death. The importance of working with the real thing has not decreased, despite modern technology. Demand still outstrips supply. People today worry that an opt-out system for organ donation, where consent is assumed, might leave the vulnerable in society at a disadvantage. Rather than being an after-thought, I felt that this last section showed how the issues raised in the 19th century were still very much current, and unresolved.
This is a wonderful exhibition, although not one for the squeamish. The storytelling is excellent throughout, from setting the scene to showing the relevance of history to today. Each part has a different atmosphere to it, created by clever decorating and curating. It is one of my highlights of the year.