We recently invited Cherry Martin, author of The Irregular Anatomist to write a guest article on her experience of the new Surgeons’ Hall Museums. As a frequent visitor and anatomy enthusiast, we were keen to hear what Cherry made of the redevelopments and how her experience compared to previous visits.
With a history as dark as its narrow and winding closes, Edinburgh is a great place to live if, like me, you enjoy spending your weekends exploring the eerie and meandering through the macabre. From Burke and Hare to medical breakthroughs, this wonderful city has been home to the sinister and more serious sides of science and medicine for centuries.
With a leading medical school and one the oldest surgical corporations in the world, it is no surprise that Edinburgh hosts some of the UK’s most interesting history of surgery collections. After £4 million worth of developments to modernise The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh’s museum, I must admit that my anticipation sat somewhere in between ‘this is so exciting!’ and ‘I hope they’ve not changed it too much.’ As a regular visitor to what we can now call the old Surgeons’ Hall Museums, I certainly wasn’t disappointed.
Those who have visited RCSEd before will be no stranger to the grand welcome you receive upon arrival. Impressive Playfair-designed pillars greet you standing as tall as the prestigious surgeons represented by the College since the early 16th century. Instantly, visiting the newly refurbished Surgeons’ Hall Museums was a whole new, different and exciting experience.
I have visited many medical museums over the years and the original entrance to Surgeons’ Hall on Hill Square had the same intriguing ‘Am I going the right way, am I allowed in here?’ feeling that old university museums tend to have. Climbing the endless well-worn staircase, you would arrive quietly at the entrance and shuffle in, trying not to disturb the visitors around you. Now, with the newly renovated entranceway to the main College, you are welcomed by a bright and modern atrium. Rather than being directed onto Hill Square, visitors can now take the lift or the stairs via this fresh and inviting main entrance. The new reception area portrays an established, professional and up-to-date museum with a gift shop stocking books, novelties and items branded with a contemporary new Surgeons’ Hall logo; you have arrived at a new museum.
Arriving at the lower level I felt a comforting sense of familiarity as I caught a glimpse of the antique display cabinets I’ve grown so attached to over my many, many visits. Before I knew it I’d honed in on a new and very impressive piece of interactive kit; the touch screen anatomy exploration station. This huge digital display allows visitors to explore the body, layer by layer, system by system. Allowing visitors to interact with a virtual human body so soon after they arrive really highlights what Surgeons’ Hall are successfully achieving here – encouraging visitors to understand and appreciate the story of their own body as they embark on a journey through the history of surgery.
I wandered, in my element, past specimen after specimen including an amputated third leg or supernumercy limb and a Paget’s disease skeleton, weakened and deformed by the disease over the course of the 20th century. The ‘re-potting’ of specimens, whitening of skeletons and rearrangement of displays made familiar artefacts look like new and those I didn’t recognise even more intriguing. I soon reached The Anatomy Lab, a fantastic educational venue with the eerie set-design feel of a surgeon’s office from centuries gone by. This space is set to be a wonderful asset to the museums, enabling visiting groups and external events to use this theatrical space for talks, courses and performances.
Now that the dental artefacts have been relocated elsewhere in the new Surgeons’ Hall, what was the The Dental Museum is now another versatile space which will host a variety of temporary exhibitions. Currently home to ‘Casualties – Images of military medicine from Waterloo to the First World War’, the bright and airy room displays artwork on loan from the National Army Museum by two of the College’s most well renowned Fellows, Sir Charles Bell and Sir Henry Wade.
As I continued my tour, entranced, I experienced what is by far the most outstanding sight in the new Surgeons’ Hall Museums; The Anatomy Theatre. A replica dissection amphitheatre straight out of the 17th century, this grand and dramatic flourish really does bring the museums to life. Visitors can take a seat and look down upon a 3D digital cadaver as Archibald Pitcairne, an Edinburgh professor of medicine in the late 16th and early 17th century, talks the audience through a dissection as incision after incision explores the layers of the body below.
There are some wonderful new interactive features in the museums which make the visitor experience really enjoyable, but I must say, I was most looking forward to finally getting a glimpse of the old wet specimens of the previously forbidden upper gallery. During previous visits I would gaze up at the gallery from the museum, only able to imagine the contents of dusty jars lurking in the shadows, frustratingly out of reach to the visitors below.
This collection now composes the new Wohl Pathology Museum which is on display to the public for the very first time. There are in fact now double the number of specimens on display at Surgeons’ Hall than there were previously, some of which have not been viewed by visitors for almost 200 years. Curated by surgical specialty, hundreds of specimens fill row after row of display cases which have now been retrofitted with perspex facings, facilitating the public display of the many bottles and jars which fill them. Touch-screens allow visitors to learn more about each area of surgery and every carefully curated collection highlights specimens which explain more about the patients, their conditions and injuries and the stories behind them.
As I turned to leave, I wished I could have stayed longer but smiled as I planned my next visit. Whether you have seen the collections many times before or have always wondered what lies behind the doors at Surgeons’ Hall, please do be sure to visit – Edinburgh has acquired a whole new museum.
Author, The Irregular Anatomist