Brief Encounters

Veronica Simpson delves into a fascinating journey through the Hunterian Museum’s collection.

WHILE IT is ‘not currently very fashionable to celebrate old, white men’, according to Dawn Kemp, the director of London’s newly revamped Hunterian Museum, there are some very good reasons, she says, why that is exactly what the new Hunterian presentation by Casson Mann has done. It has placed John Hunter (1728– 1793) front and centre of this famous museum within the Royal College of Surgeons as part of the original Georgian building’s multi-million pound revamp by Hawkins\Brown Architects.

I last visited the Hunterian in 2013, with my then 10-year-old daughter. We were both of us struck by the beauty and strangeness of the ‘Crystal Gallery’ as it had been dubbed, a gleaming white space filled with over 2,000 specimens in glass jars. The fragile, sepia remains of frogs, dogs and a multitude of distorted human body parts – from foetuses to syphilitic brains – twinkled at us from deep within their glass vessels, exposing the fantastical workings of anatomy to our dazzled eyes. At the end of the visit, my daughter declared it her favourite museum ever. But neither of us left with any idea who the museum was named for.

And this is what Casson Mann and Kemp are trying to redress in their £4.6m redesign – because, through the story of Hunter, we can learn about the evolution of medical science, from pre-medieval times to the present day. There are a couple of introductory rooms to prepare us before we meet this maverick and obsessive scientist, who left school at 13 with no qualifications but, thanks to his passion for observing, drawing and dissecting the animal and plant world he found around him, revolutionised our understanding of anatomy (as well as making serious contributions to botany). As one caption says: ‘By the time of his death in 1793, John Hunter was the most famous anatomist and surgeon in Britain.’

The early rooms are about putting all this in context, however, and sharing with us some of the oldest surviving efforts by artists and would-be medics to draw, observe and preserve the human body. The intention here, says Kemp, is to emphasise the close relationship between art and science before these two sympathetic bedfellows were siloed off. Artists were just as likely to be present at dissections as future doctors, Kemp says – Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Christopher Wren among them. If the latter two hadn’t absorbed the marvels of human infrastructure that were revealed to them on the dissection table, perhaps they could not have conceived of their vast cathedrals, whose roof trusses soar like ribcages above our heads.

Among the most striking displays are those of the Evelyn Tables that go into grisly detail in their exploration of the human anatomy. Image Credit: Hufton And Crow

That cross-fertilisation was written into the laws of the Royal College of Surgeons, says Kemp, which was ‘established to promote the art and science of surgery’. Various showcases and large, dissecting-table style A/Vs bring those early experiments, and the tools by which they were conducted, into the room.

But few exhibits are as fascinating (while also deeply disturbing) as the Evelyn Tables. Made some time in the 1640s, these are the oldest surviving anatomical preparations of their kind. Actual pathways of blood vessels and nerves have been painstakingly removed from deceased patients and, along with their surrounding tissues, dried onto four long, wooden boards. They are named after a 17th century amateur science enthusiast, John Evelyn, who discovered them in Padua – then a leading European centre for medical instruction – and brought them back to the UK. Their reddish amber glow haunts one side of the gallery.

It’s in the third room that we meet Hunter – in fact we see him framed in a doorway, his marble bust glowing among the skulls of the animals he collected and dissected, while a soundtrack plays us the clucks, grunts, tweets and moos that would have emanated from them in their heyday. And, after learning about his obsessions and self-schooled experiments here, we find ourselves in the Long Hall. It would have been hard for anyone to compete with the original Crystal Gallery that my daughter and I witnessed, itself only built in 2005, and which had boosted visitor numbers up to 100,000 a year prior to the building’s closure for reconstruction. It was the scale of that reconstruction – keeping only the Grade II-listed frontage of the building while extending its footprint to the rear – that meant a new exhibition space was inevitable. When Casson Mann came on board in 2018, the 500 sq m museum space had already been allocated in the plan. Roger Mann says: ‘It was a very awkward space…the kind of space that’s left over when everything else has been decided.’ But they made the most of its horseshoe shape by devoting the longest volume, in the middle, to a new hall of specimens.

In terms of impact, I would say Casson Mann has matched the former display, albeit with a totally different atmosphere achieved by painting the hall in sombre, dark grey, which makes the spotlit specimens all the more theatrical. Where the white setting of the previous display rather highlighted the yellowing tissues, Mann’s team chose this grey to cast a pinker, fresher glow over the specimens. They also spent ‘years and years’, says Mann, working with the curatorial team to ensure that each specimen has its own, short label, clearly flagged up so you can see exactly what you’re looking at (unlike before).

Among the most striking displays are those of the Evelyn Tables that go into grisly detail in their exploration of the human anatomy. Image Credit: Hufton And Crow

To offer light relief from these fleshy relics, and refresh our understanding of Hunter’s life and times, there are small corridors off this hall that take us into rooms styled to evoke the homes and research environments Hunter enjoyed during his long and prosperous practice, from the live animals he surrounded himself with at his ‘country estate’ in Earls Court, to the dissecting table he used in his elegant drawing rooms in Leicester Square. All the rooms relating to Hunter are painted in tones that replicate the Georgian palette of the times. There’s also a rather fetching purple hue to the room that follows the Long Hall, which details some of Hunter’s famous patients as well as the surgeons he trained (he taught some 1,000 pupils over his lifetime, many of whom became leaders in their respective fields). In the following gallery, a deep Victorian blue, contrasting with soft grey, gives us the advances in surgery and medical care during the 19th century, then we move into clinical whites and greys in the penultimate gallery that brings us bang up-to-date on robotic surgery. The final, darkened room pays tribute to the more patient-centric practices of this day and age (or at least, those we aspire to), with a 50-minute film exploring the experiences of several patients before, during and after surgery.

Set within this interpretative framework, the topics of surgery and medicine really come to life, as well as Hunter’s own astonishing trajectory. As Mann says: ‘For a farm boy from Glasgow, he did pretty well.’

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