London: Royal College of Physicians Museum

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George Cruikshank’s “The Gin Shop”

Before I begin, I wanted to announce that this is my 99th post, so the next will obviously be the 100th!  I’m planning a little giveaway of postcards and things (and it really is a very modest giveaway, so don’t be expecting any big exciting prizes, because my budget is VERY limited at the moment!) to mark such a momentous occasion, so please check back on Friday if you’re interested in winning a lovely and eclectic assortment of postcards from my collection.  Now, on with the post!

After my experience at the Dental Museum, I’ve been somewhat reluctant to visit some of the smaller medical museums in London that I’m not already familiar with, for fear they’d be just as lame.  However, I was sufficiently intrigued by the current exhibition at the Royal College of Physicians to take a chance on a trip up to the east side of Regent’s Park.  “This Bewitching Poison,” which promised to “explore 300 years of drinking history through the work of artists, doctors, and satirists,” sounded just dandy, since I love both medical history and satire.  The rather ugly modern architecture of the building wasn’t quite was I was expecting, as I was hoping for something classical and imposing in the vein of the Royal College of Surgeons (teehee, vein), but I nonetheless collected my visitor’s pass from the reception desk, and made my way up to the first floor to the start of the special exhibit (I also missed the chance to walk up the famous “floating” staircase, as it was closed off, and had to settle for the unremarkable lift).

489px-GinLane

Although there were no signs prohibiting photography, I was the only visitor, and security guards kept walking by, so I felt a little weird whipping out my phone to take pictures (and I’m not an enthusiastic photographer at the best of times, as most of you probably know by now); instead, I’ve chosen to illustrate this post with some of my favourite cartoons in the exhibition, because c’mon, satire!  The layout reminded me of the Warren Museum in Boston, in that there were a few cases in a “U” formation around a stairwell, and all the people who actually worked in the building kept briskly strolling past me, which made me feel slightly awkward, but I quickly turned my attention to the contents of the cases.

There was a short film about alcoholism in one corner playing on a loop; I only watched part of it as I was eager to check out the artefacts, which were in large part cartoons, including many by George Cruikshank, who became a temperance campaigner in his later years; he was influenced by both his father’s death from alcohol poisoning, and his own heavy drinking as a young man.  In addition to these, the RCP had compiled objects from various museums around London, some of which I’d seen before, but there were also some new things to check out.  I’d definitely noticed the Charles II mug at the Museum of London, but seeing the delightful Charles caricature is always a treat.  The most fascinating thing however, at least to me, was a mug made from antimony which doctors used to direct people to fill with wine and herbs and let soak overnight, as the resulting concoction was supposed to serve as a cure for various ailments. In reality, at least three people died after drinking from that particular mug, plus countless others from similar “cures.”

Plate VI from Cruikshank's "The Bottle."  Image from http://www.lostmuseum.cuny.edu/archives/cruikshank.htm

Plate VI from Cruikshank’s “The Bottle.” Image from http://www.lostmuseum.cuny.edu/archives/cruikshank.htm

The exhibit continued on the lower ground floor, in the “Treasures” room, which also housed most of the rest of the museum’s collections.  However, I was distracted from the conclusion of the special exhibit by the stunning silver collection which filled the bulk of this room.  Although many of the labels were missing, there was a handy booklet on a side table which provided descriptions of every item in there (honestly, I was probably happier not knowing what some of them did).  The tongue scrapers and tooth extractors were one thing, but the giant female catheter (which for some reason was at least four times the thickness of the male one, even though I really don’t think our urethras are any wider…what gives?!) made me cringe, as did some of the other gynaecological devices of yore.  It certainly wasn’t quite on the level of goriness as the Hunterian, as the only real “specimen” was a caul in a silver case, but many of the medical instruments were grim enough, especially as they allowed you to appreciate what having those procedures performed on you might have been like in a pre-anaesthetics world.

Outside the “Treasures” room, an impressive collection of apothecary jars lined the hallway. I keep saying that I want to start collecting these (but no one’s taken the hint and bought one for me yet, though in fairness, I already have so many knick-knacks that I probably need to move into a bigger flat or house first), so I loved this display!  According to the tourist brochure I was handed, there’s another room on the second floor that houses a collection of anatomy boards with preserved nervous systems and things on them, similar to the ones in the Hunterian, but I was unfortunately in a bit of a rush so I didn’t have a chance to go up and see them.  I bet they’re grand though.  There’s also a medicinal garden on the grounds, but I didn’t check whether it was open in winter or not as it was fairly chilly that day, and again, I was in a hurry after spending longer than I anticipated admiring the displays inside.

Paula Rego's "O Vinho-playtime"  Image from http://www.rcplondon.ac.uk/o-vinho-playtime-lithograph-paula-rego-2007

Paula Rego’s “O Vinho-playtime” Image from http://www.rcplondon.ac.uk/o-vinho-playtime-lithograph-paula-rego-2007

In the end, I was glad I took the chance, as the RCP was quite good.  Though the “Bewitching Poison” exhibit was on the small side, as I was expecting, I think they did a good job of explaining the medical and social uses of alcohol, and I loved all the antiquarian books in their collection which were open to pages featuring old remedies and “cures.”  My only wish is that the exhibit could have been larger, but I think they did a great job curating what they had, and were probably working with limited space.  The alcohol exhibition runs until 27th of June, so get in before then if you want to check it out.  4/5.

All images were taken from Wikimedia Commons, except where otherwise stated.

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