I have promised Maren & Barrie a guide to all the horrible (used very loosely) things in London that I adore. I might as well put them up here. Why not? Instalment one: the weird and wonderful science of the capital encompassed in two lesser-known museums: The Wellcome Collection and the Hunterian Museum.
The Wellcome Collection occupies a huge frontage along the Euston Road – you can’t miss it, but it’s not particularly a tourist destination. This is a shame, because the curators there pull out some amazing ideas and find ways to make medical science accessible and relevant to the layperson. They say their general aim is to “explore what it means to be human,” and they definitely win all my prizes for public engagement.
A few years ago, I visited their exhibition of skeletons found underneath London, discovered during construction projects throughout the city. One of the locations was found to be a cemetery for prostitutes, who could not be buried near churches; another sat beneath a mint in the City of London proper. Pathologists were able to study these centuries-old remains and determine the most probable causes of death. I learned that 1. untreated tuberculosis does horrible things to bones, 2. being buried beneath a mint that makes copper coins will stain teeth bright green, and 3. EVERYBODY IN 16th CENTURY LONDON HAD ANKYLOSING SPONDYLITIS (and also 4. “ankylosing spondylitis,” a type of spinal arthritis, is difficult to spell)
There’s now a Pizza Hut on the site in the southern suburbs where bodies from the old Merton Abbey were found. Welp.
Anyway, the Wellcome Trust also sponsors an annual photography award, highlighting the crossover between art and science that is so popular these days. These are not your boring high school textbook pictures – there are some truly amazing works created in the everyday work of scientists. These are caffeine crystals:
And now for something not completely different, but a bit more grisly. Tucked away behind the London School of Economics and the Royal Courts of Justice, there is a museum of unsightly pickled body parts. It’s the Hunterian Museum, part of the Royal College of Surgeons, and it’s brilliant.
(Photo from Londonist, because mere mortals are not allowed to take photos)
John Hunter, an 18th century doctor and eccentric collector of all things pathological, bequeathed his collection to the Royal College, where it is now on public display. A face with smallpox? Got it. All sorts of syphillitic tissues? Got them. Bones of an 8-week foetus? Yes. Tumors? All over the place. The skeleton of Charles Byrne, the Irish giant? Got it, though in respect of his last wishes he may be buried at sea in the future. On the non-human side, they also have an exhibition of extinct animal remains, including a woolly mammoth. In total, the museum has over 3500 specimens, fossils, and drawings.
When I see a painting made centuries ago, with astonishing technique, I’m always amazed at how a person could possibly create something that looks so flawless. The same applies to anatomy and pathology – you can’t help but be amazed that from some basic chemical elements, humans have evolved such specialized organs. The specimens are simultaneously mundane in their familiarity and shocking in their dislocation. Where once they held life and performed specific functions, they’re now suspended and out of context and useless, essentially mere scaffolding. The human has been taken out of them, and just the basic structure remains. Disease and dysfunction aren’t too surprising, when you think of it – what’s amazing that more things don’t go wrong.
One thing to appreciate is how tastefully and soberly the exhibits are put together. This is not a circus sideshow. Everything is well-lit and minimalist in presentation. John Hunter himself wasn’t the most respectful of the people behind his specimens back in the 18th century – he knew very well Byrne didn’t want to be displayed after his death – but the Royal College of Surgeons has put together a top-notch collection of things you’ve probably never seen before, meaning You Will Learn Something. You’re not allowed to take any pictures, but you’re free to draw. This is obviously not a place for anybody with a weak stomach – there are lots of foetuses and faces – but if you can deal with it, the Hunterian is a fascinating place to visit off the beaten track.
If you have an appetite after this (dammit Kite, you’re morbid) and it’s Thursday, Friday, or Saturday, wind your way down across the river to Borough Market, London’s food heaven. I used to go here on my lunch breaks when I worked nearby, and you can make a satisfying snack from samples alone. Along with food, there’s also kitchen stuff and flowers for sale. Hell, I once came back into the office with a tiny lime tree from Borough Market tucked under my arm, which I think made this guy who sat across from me and was pretty cool think I had utterly lost the plot. (Well, both that and the time he asked, “Does anybody have any food?” and I casually replied, “Yeah, I’ve got eels in the fridge,” because I did, and I’ll gladly share those slimy non-kosher bad boys.) That tree died pretty quickly, because citrus is meant to grow in Andalucia, not Archway. Anyway. Ostrich burgers? Yes. The old-school cart making bubble-and-squeak sandwiches? Bigger yes. If you’re looking for vegetables, don’t buy from the first few shops you see when you come in – the better values are likely to be found further inside. Also, there’s this one stand with a woman who makes amazing mushroom paté. Eat it. Buy a jar and eat it. Eat it all.
The Wellcome Collection
183 Euston Road NW1 2BE
Opening: Tuesday-Sunday, 10 AM – 6 PM (open later Thursdays)
Tube: Euston, Euston Square, Warren Street
Hunterian Museum, Royal College of Surgeons
35-43 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, WC2A 3PE
Opening: Tuesday-Saturday, 10 AM – 5 PM.
Admission: Free, but suggested donation of £3
Tube: Holborn, Temple
Southwark Street at Borough High Street, SE1 1TL
Opening: Thursday-Saturday, hours vary (but go early)
Prices: Kind of up there, but the food is gooooood.
Tube: London Bridge