A pickled Saturday afternoon

One of the amazing things about London is that, despite its horrific expense in many areas, there’s quite a fantastic amount of entertainment that can be had for free. Most of the big museums cost nothing (except for major exhibitions), you can find free concerts across the city – heck, today you could even watch ice sculpting gratis at Canary Wharf!

Today, I was en route to Covent Garden (favourite free Saturday haunt) for some ‘aimless mooching’ [it was actually quite specific mooching – I wanted to check out the Fat Face sale (again) and try and acquire a beautiful pair of shoes from M&S (strange, but true)] when I had a text from a friend asking if I’d be up for doing something cultural. But of course I would – especially as their tardiness in getting the day started meant I was able to do my mooching before they arrived.

Various options were explored. There’s some great exhibitions on at the V&A at the moment – from the architecture of tube stations, to chocolate loving and bookbinding. Sir John Soame’s House (close to where we ended up) was an option, as was a potentially pricey Gaugin exhibit at Tate Modern. I was in Fat Face perusing the sale aisle during this conversation and may well have disturbed other customers when I uttered the words “well, what’s not to like about pickled bodies?”.

Our destination ended up being the Hunterian Museum, located in the Royal College of Surgeons on Lincoln’s Inn Fields, a mixture of the history of British surgery and an anatomical exploration of various creatures, both human and non-human (this is where the pickled bodies came in). Embarrassingly, this was my first ever visit, despite it being (quite literally) 30 seconds from where I went to university for three years.

It sounds like quite a niche (and possibly gross) museum in which to spend a Saturday afternoon, but you know what? It’s not so bad – and this is from someone who has to look away when people give injections on TV, or when graphic surgery’s shown. All I would say, is that if you were taking me on a date, this would not be somewhere to take me, hence my surprise that there were so many couples inside (some engaged in particularly annoying PDAs, which are even more inappropriate while stood in front of dead things).

The audience was an interesting mixture of people, from those (mostly young and a tad gothy) who were there for the dead and pickled things; perfectly normal people (like us) who were interested in the history and science; and parents with children – older children who couldn’t be torn away from the rather graphic surgical film (I turned away at the words “now the flap of skin will be stapled to the skull…”) without force. I also spotted a toddler in a pram, which seemed odd – wouldn’t the many, many jars of dead things be disturbing? Then I remembered that Clutterbuck folklore tells that on my first trip to the Natural History Museum (aged 2) I told people on my return that I’d been to the zoo – I’d gone round so quickly that I hadn’t noticed none of the animals were moving! Actually, I was worried I was going round too quickly this time, but it turned out my companion was something of a slow reader and was making notes of every error he found on the displays – once a copy-editor, always a copy-editor.

Some of the many, many jars of dead things and bits of dead things.

Perhaps I’m focussing too much on the dead stuff. In fact, much of the museum is devoted to the history of the collection [sadly two-thirds of it was lost due to bombing in WW2. Things pickled in alcohol tend not to survive fire…] and the development of surgery over the last couple of centuries. Never will you be more grateful to the NHS, or thankful that you weren’t living a century ago. If you’re anything like me, you’ll also walk around the museum clutching different bits of your body as they’re mentioned. Teeth? Jaw will suddenly clench and your hand will go to your mouth. Stomach? Arms wrapped around you protectively. Women’s bits? Cross legs and inwardly cringe. [TMI? Apolgies.] 
But what have I learnt? That until the 20th century, surgeons didn’t need to have qualified as doctors – in fact, during the 18th and early 19th centuries, you could just pop along and watch a surgeon at work to learn the trade, eeek. Until anaesthetics and infections were properly understood, it was best to carry out amputations as fast as possible – one surgeon managing it in 28 seconds (with a curved knife). Oh, and the possibility of a future where antibiotics no longer work is very, very scary.
As we finished the history of surgery exhibit, a question crossed my mind. What was the gift shop going to be like? An important question I feel, after all, it’s always the highlight of any museum visit. Would I be able to buy my very own pickled lizard? (I was very taken by the pickled lizards, somehow reptiles, amphibians and similar looked less wrong pickled than mammals and made me a lot less sad than the collection of human foetuses at the end of the museum did.) Sadly, I was to be disappointed, the shop was small and contained little medical related tat – though you could buy a syringe-like pen or a history of amputation (costing £100). 
I do hope this hasn’t put you off – it is a good, free afternoon’s entertainment, honest! Best not to eat just before you go, just in case you are of a particularly sensitive disposition. (Although, I’d not had lunch and felt my stomach start to rumble viciously half-way round, which felt rather wrong, while looking at stomach operations…) Oh, and you get a badge on a lanyard while you’re in the building – did I mention that? Possibly the most exciting aspect of the entire visit! 


  1. Looks like the Mutter museum in Philadelphia. Did we go there?

  2. Nope, we didn’t go to any museums in Philly! The weather was too nice to be indoors.

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