London: Royal London Hospital Museum

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I’m shamelessly trying to lure you in with a picture of the best bit first.

I knew full well that the Royal London Hospital Museum had Joseph Merrick’s veiled hat-thing, but I hadn’t gone to visit it until now.  I fear I have only myself to blame (but in fairness to myself, the first time I went to Whitechapel, in a misguided attempt to see the streets where Jack the Ripper lurked, I was chased down the street by a gang of men until I fled into the tube station, so I was in no great hurry to return). Also, they’re not open on weekends, which didn’t really help either. The museum is not particularly easy to find, and involved cutting through the modern hospital, wandering around a courtyard for a while after the signs abruptly tailed off, going back in the hospital to ask for directions (and be met with a vague response), and some more wandering until finally spying another sign far down the street and at last finding the museum.  Of course, if you possess some sense of direction, this process can be greatly simplified by simply walking through the main entrance of the hospital opposite Whitechapel station, heading down the main hallway, and turning right onto Newark Street upon exiting the building.

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I was ultimately rewarded for my pains by stepping into a pleasantly cool room that I had all to myself, (not counting my boyfriend, but he’s fairly quiet and unobtrusive) which was filled with cases of some pretty wonderful stuff.  Whilst Joseph Merrick (the Elephant Man) was undoubtedly the most famous patient, the hospital was founded in 1740, so there’s been a quite a list of prominent names (including some famous Americans) connected with it over the years, and they have the artefacts to prove it!  These include a letter written by Benjamin Franklin, and another letter from George Washington, accompanied by a set of his false teeth.  I’m starting to wonder how many sets George actually had, as the Hunterian also has one, and I think I might have seen a pair in Edinburgh as well.  The man was the Imelda Marcos of teeth!  According to the Founding Foodies book (on the culinary contributions of the founding fathers (I actually own this book, so yes, I am a nerd.)), he enjoyed mush cakes with syrup for breakfast, so he must have spent the rest of his time gnawing on bones or something.

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There were a few other famous (or perhaps notorious, in one case) people featured here.  I seem to keep encountering Edith Cavell this days – she first came to my attention in Belgium at one of the WWI museums, and then I happened to be in Norwich, where she is buried.  The Royal London Hospital Museum has an entire case devoted to her fascinating story, and after leaving, I passed her statue next to Trafalgar Square on my way up Charing Cross Road for Malaysian roti (which was amazing, by the way), which I’d somehow never noticed before.  An arrogant pigeon was perched on her head.  There’s also a display case for Florence Nightingale, but I always thought she was a bit of a prude, so I’ll not devote more attention to her here. On the opposite end of the humanity spectrum, being in Whitechapel, the museum naturally has to include Jack the Ripper somewhere, and they oblige with a copy of a letter from “Jack” sent to London Hospital following the crimes.

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And of course, the museum doesn’t neglect poor Joseph Merrick.  The centre of the museum has a TV and bench where you can sit and watch videos about Merrick, (you’ll need the bench, as most of them are 20 minutes long) including one on the impact he’s had on modern conceptions of disability, which was of interest to me as I wrote my Master’s thesis on 18th century dwarfism (and disability); I was influenced in large part by William Hay’s Deformity, An Essay, written over 100 years before Merrick was even born. Seems the Georgians were more evolved in that area, as William Hay became an MP despite his hunchback.  But back to Merrick; the museum has the aforementioned hat that he used to shield himself from prying eyes, a signed photo of himself that he gave to a staff member, a replica of his skeleton, a card church he made, and his only surviving letter.  It’s quite a poignant little collection.

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The museum has plenty of other cool stuff, and not just relating to famous individuals either.  The cases in the main hallway cover the history of the museum, with patient records and menus, and portraits of the most influential doctors.  There’s also plenty of medical instruments, and a collection of nurse uniforms over the decades (they were never exactly keeping up with the style of the times).  I was pleasantly surprised at how much neat stuff they had, as I’ve been disappointed by London medical museums in the past (I’m looking at you, Dental Museum. Ugh, and that awful John Snow exhibit which was one of my first posts on here!).  It’s not terribly big, but I think is worthy of attention.  Oh, and admission is free, but I’m sure they’d be grateful if you dropped a little something into the donation box by the door!  4/5

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7 comments

  1. Very nice article, Jessica. You really know your stuff. I’ve been to the RLH Museum and it’s terrific. You might be interested in our group, the Friends of Joseph Carey Merrick, who are devoted to promoting his life and legacy. We have a new bio of him called “Measured by the Soul,: The Life of Joseph Carey Merrick” available on Amazon.co.uk

    1. Thank you Mae! Your book looks really interesting; I’ll definitely have to check it out one of these days (I’m especially intrigued by the photos, as I’m pretty sure I’ve only ever seen the one that was in the RLH Museum) as I’m always keen to learn more about Joseph!

  2. Are the death cast and skeleton of the dwarf Harvey leach a k a hervio nano located in your museum?

    1. I’m afraid it’s not my museum, I’m just a blogger! I’ve only been there once, but I don’t recall seeing anything like that. It’s not a terribly big museum, so I think I would have noticed another skeleton if it was there! Too bad, it sounds like the sort of thing I’d be interested in! 🙂

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