London: Delicious Decay at St. Bart’s and Halloween Late at the Hunterian

dsc09012_stitchHappy belated Halloween everybody!  I probably should have mentioned Halloween last week, but even though I try to live in a state of readiness for Halloween year-round, it still has a way of sneaking up on me!  Now that my favourite holiday has come and gone, I have two recent Halloween-themed events I attended to tell you about, but first, I have some exciting personal news I’d like to share with you: I am now a British citizen, having attended the official ceremony last week!  I can’t pretend I’m as happy about it as I would have been pre-Brexit, but this is still a fairly big deal for me, because I’ve been living here for eight years, and it’s nice to finally feel like I can’t be suddenly booted out on the whims of the Home Office, not to mention the joy of never having to wait in the non-EU passport queue at the airport again!  And now, on to the Halloweening (or should I say Hallowienering?  You’ll see what I mean further into the post)!

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The first event was “Delicious Decay: The Edible Body Farm,” held at St. Bart’s Pathology Museum.  I’ve attended a number of lectures there over the years, some of which I thought were really pretty good, and others…not so much.  I think this last event might be the last straw for me and St. Bart’s though, as it was a real damp squib.  One of my (many) pet hates is having to pay to attend a market or festival where you then have to pay for everything inside said market, which is exactly what this was.  It’s not quite so galling if the entry fee is fairly modest, but if I’ve parted with £10.99 (which is essentially the same price as one of their lectures, where you’re at least given a drink + hear a lecture, of course), I expect to get something for my money.

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I admit being initially enticed in by the promise that we’d be able to view the second floor of the museum, which is not normally open to the public, and also by the opportunity to “excavate edible soil for as many consumable body parts as you can eat.”  Well, I’ll get to the second floor in a minute, but first I’d like to talk about those consumable body parts, because it was one of the most irritating parts of the whole experience.  If you promise me all-you-can-eat cake, you had damn well better deliver, and this certainly did not.  I think perhaps the cake wasn’t exactly what they were envisioning when they wrote the event description, because instead of being body parts that you had to excavate, it was just a big decomposing corpse cake, surrounded by some rocks, soil, and white chocolate maggots, as shown in the picture on the right.  So there was really nothing to excavate as such, but I was perfectly fine with just shoving my gob full of body cake.  We were told we could only eat from the legs, which was a bit annoying (especially because the girl ahead of me licked her spoon before sticking it in the cake, eurgh), but I could understand that they wanted something left for the later sessions to look at, so fair enough.  However, I was then told we could only have one spoonful of cake each, so there would be enough for everyone, even though the edibles were meant to be “replenished” throughout the day.  Now, I don’t know about you, but one small spoonful of cake is certainly not “all” the cake I can eat.  I mean, jeez, at least give me a whole piece (obviously I can eat more than one piece of cake, but I would have felt better about it if I’d had a whole piece)!  The woman working there did say we could have as much of the soil and chocolate rocks as we wanted, but when I grabbed a second small handful of rocks (literally three rocks, and they were only the size of Minstrels), she gave me a dirty look, so apparently I was only supposed to want one spoon’s worth.  I REALLY don’t like it when people toy with me where food is concerned, so this event was already off to a bad start.

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A quick wander around the museum floor confirmed that all the other stalls there were full of items you had to pay for (some of the cakes and stuff were cool looking, but I cannot justify spending £7.50 on a single biscuit.  Especially as it was more than likely a case of style over substance), and some of the sellers were fairly aggressive (some guy kept trying to sell us candy made from honeyed pig, even after I said I was a vegetarian), so we headed up to the second floor to escape.  The ground floor of the pathology museum is somewhere I’ve looked around many times, and it is full of many cool specimens, so I was eager to get a look at the second floor.  Unfortunately, though there were undoubtedly many interesting body parts up there, none of them had labels yet, so it was hard to tell what some of them were (I think knowing what the person died from is half the fun).  Also, only half the second floor was actually open, the rest being blocked off with various carts and other curatorial tools.  I can see why it’s not normally open to the public, is my point.

However, before just outright leaving (we’d only been there for 15 minutes, even though our session was for an hour), there was a mini lecture to attend. Only one, as far as I could tell, even though the event description said, “there will also be mini lectures to educate on what each of the unusual consumables represents and how they relate to decomposition.”  Perhaps the fact that there weren’t really many unusual consumables free to eat put the kibosh on that. But there was a lecture on the chemicals used to train cadaver dogs, and I never pass up a chance to experience authentic smells, even gross ones.  The talk was basically fine, albeit brief and a bit hard to hear, but because of the large number of people in the audience who apparently didn’t understand the concept of passing something on to the next person once they’d finished, not everyone got to sniff every chemical.  Anyway, it certainly wasn’t good enough to justify that outrageous entry fee, and this is definitely the last time I’ll be attending this sort of event at St. Bart’s.  I get that they need money to preserve the museum, but they either could have offered more free activities (there was a face painter doing corpse makeup, but I really hate having my face painted, plus there was a big queue for it.  That was it, activity-wise though) or charged a more modest entry fee to reflect what was actually available.

weinerAnd then there’s the Hunterian Museum, one of my favourite museums in London. The Hunterian is a free museum, and this event was also free, though you had to pre-book (for once I was on the ball, and booked it in August, so I’m not sure if/when it sold out).  Therefore, after the disappointment of Bart’s, I reckoned that if this event also sucked, at least I hadn’t wasted any money.  Fortunately, it did not suck.

The Halloween Late not only offered the chance to explore the museum after-hours, which in itself I probably wouldn’t have bothered attending, because it’s much less crowded during normal opening hours, but there was also a pickle your own part activity, and a short lecture on the anatomy of a hanging.  Not being the kind of person who enjoys waiting, I ran straight into the “pickling” room for my chance, though the set-up seemed fairly good in that they’d chosen a large room with long tables, and had lots of materials out, so quite a few people could work at the same time.  Basically, you got to model a body part of your choosing out of clay, and then stick it in a “specimen jar” for preserving.  All materials were provided, except the jar, which we were asked to bring from home, though there were a few jars there for people who forgot.  Marcus made a fetus, as you can see above, and you can also probably guess what I made…it certainly attracted a lot of attention (see, I told you Hallowiener would make sense)!

The lecture was also pretty good; it was given by a retired surgeon, and he discussed what happened to the body during various methods of execution, including a hanging, beheading, and hanging, drawing, and quartering.  A bit grisly (especially the latter method), but thoroughly enjoyable!  I should emphasise again that this was all free!  There was a cash bar (though I didn’t imbibe), and they had five special creepy pins available for a donation of a pound (I got two, a skull and a glass eye), but it certainly wasn’t anything like the shake-down we were given at Bart’s, plus I’m happy to donate a bit to a museum that is always free and always excellent.  Unfortunately, no photographs are allowed at the Hunterian, due to the medical nature of the specimens, which is the main reason why I’ve never done a full post on it previously, and why I’m not really doing one now, but I do urge you to visit it if you’re ever in London.  Their specimen jars are exquisite, they have some excellent skeletons and paintings of medical oddities, and though their WWI section is small, I’ve always been a fan of it (the story of one of the men who had a pioneering facial reconstruction operation is really sweet, and makes me tear up a little).

Well, that more or less covers what I did for Halloween this year, other than baking far too much cake (to make up for all the cake I didn’t get to eat at the first event), and of course watching Hocus Pocus, The Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror I-VII, and a few other select cheesy horror films (starring Bruce Campbell), so I’ll leave you with pictures of the pumpkins we carved (the elaborate headless horseman one is Marcus’s).  Hope you all had a suitably spooky day!

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  1. Congratulations on your citizenship – that’s huge news! I can imagine your relief.
    But argh, I’m really annoyed about this one spoon of cake business – you have my complete sympathy-anger. What a lousy con job.
    But the Hunterian sure sounds like fun! By a neat coincidence, I was in Kingston, Ontario last week and went to the Museum of Health Care – inspired by your posts – and they had an exhibit on WWI facial reconstructions as well. Really remarkable stuff. The rest of the museum was quite fun and they had some fantastic, gruesome wax models. I was actually tempted to take a picture of their grisly, wax baby arm with a raw vaccine wound for you, but they had all the lights off to make it spooky for their Halloween scavenger hunt and it was too dark. … which is probably for the best.
    Anyhow … Happy belated Halloween! Your pumpkins and specimens are wonderful. You two have some impressive carving/sculpting skills.

    1. Thank you! I was a little worried I devoted too much space to complaining about the cake, but c’mon now. It was ridiculous. And infuriating. To be honest, the cake was only average tasting because it was covered with marzipan, which I don’t really like, but I was really hungry and I definitely could have eaten way more of it, because even just-OK cake is still cake.
      Aww, it was nice of you to think of me when looking at pus-filled seeping wounds! It sounds great; I’ll definitely add that museum to the hundreds of things I need to see in Canada. The last time I was there was when I went to Montreal about 10 or 11 years ago, so I’m definitely due for a big Canadian roadtrip sooner or later I think.
      Hope you had a good Halloween too (the whole medical scavenger hunt thing certainly sounds promising)! And thanks for the compliment…I think Marcus is really the one with the artistic talent; I just usually end up improvising something stupid but I guess sometimes it turns out alright! Not when I was in school though…I got solid “C’s” in art classes because the teachers always thought I wasn’t trying. I was, I just wasn’t very good!

      1. Haha! Absolutely. I took one look at that little red arm, alongside some diseased wax leg, and thought “Oh boy, I know who’d enjoy this.” But yeah, much better that you see them in person. If you do ever come to visit (which you should!) definitely stop in Kingston. Unlike Toronto’s over-priced museums, all the ones there are free/by donation. Many of them are nestled in Queen’s university buildings and I gather the guides are students who have an actual interest the subject matter – so they’re pretty excited to talk to anyone who looks interested. … Wow, didn’t mean this to become a Kingston tourism plug, sorry.
        If you could see my standard pumpkin design, you’d feel like Michelangelo. Mine always consist of just three circles – two for the eyes and one for the mouth. The general effect is usually a cross between Beaker and Stan Laurel.

      2. Well I guess I will have to visit Kingston now! Honestly, growing up in NE Ohio and all, I suppose I should have visited Canada more, but that damn Lake Erie was always in the way! Plus border control was not a fun experience…on that Montreal trip I mentioned, we got detained in some scary interrogation room with a giant gurning picture of Dubya (who was president at the time) on the way back, on account of being weird-looking punks I guess, and they searched under the hood of our car, but didn’t close it properly so that it flew back up when we started driving again. It’s lucky we weren’t on the highway yet, or I probably wouldn’t be alive to write this blog!
        And I am amused by the idea of a Stan Laurel pumpkin. Even though I don’t spend much time planning my pumpkins, I do always give them eyebrows, because I feel eyebrows are what gives them personality. The same applies whenever I attempt to draw animals, so all my old school notebooks are filled with scribbles of snakes with eyebrows eating people.

      3. Oh my god, thank goodness that hood didn’t wipe you out! Asshats. I totally don’t blame you for not having visited more. I hate having to go through customs. I once got held up in a room just like that and the officials were pretty mean. They made me sit there until my plane left and only came to talk to me after it was gone. When they found out I was a dual citizen (my Dad’s American) they were really apologetic, but I was pretty steamed. Really turned me off of wanting to travel. On a jollier note, I love the idea of a snake with eyebrows. If I had to be eaten by one, I’d like it to have big Groucho-style ones. I think that’d make me feel better about the whole thing.

  2. I was rather intrigued by the edible decay things a St Barts, but it does sound like it was pretty disapointing. I too would be pissed if I was promised a buffet and only allowed one spoonful of cake.

  3. Congratulations on the citizenship! It seems to be such an obstacle course these days. We have a Hunterian Museum in Glasgow too – called after the other Hunter brother. It belongs to the uni and does have some anatomical material but is much more general in scope. Agree that your other event sounds like a total ripoff.

    1. Thanks! To be honest, getting citizenship is far easier than all the visas and permanent residency were, but it did cost over £1200, on top of the thousands I’d already spent on various visas over the years, which is why I put off doing it for a while. Glad it’s all over with now though (well, still waiting on my British passport, but hopefully that’ll arrive within the next week or so)! I’ve heard about the other Hunterian, though I’ve yet to go, as I’ve still never been to Glasgow. One of these days!

  4. Congrats on the citizenship and (a belated) welcome! Excellent post, I’ve only visited the Hunterian once but I adore that museum – some of the specimens and prosections are not easy to view but as a (part time) osteologist they truly help to demonstrate that the bones do make the full person. Really hoping to go back at somepoint soon. Shame about the cake and St. Barts, did you leave any feedback? You want places like this to be truly great and to invigorate the public on the value of medical history and anatomy in general, but sometimes you cannot win them all.

    1. Thanks! Unfortunately, the quality at St. Bart’s seems to have been generally declining over the past couple of years, so I fear this event was part of the trend. The last lecture I attended there was also really bad. On a happier note, and on the subject of osteology, I just did a free online course with Leiden University, through Coursera, on osteoarchaeology. It gave me a new appreciation of the work of you and your blog; osteology is hard (but really interesting)!

      1. Ah that is such a shame! Are the lectures from various individuals as well? Ahh very nice 😀 How was the course? I need to do a few more online courses, it’d been a while!

      2. They are from various individuals, but it all seems to have gotten very cliquey, in that all the recent lectures have been given by friends of the curator, which probably explains the widely varying quality. As for the course, I enjoyed it, though I did feel that not enough information was provided in some modules. I found a few of the assignments really tricky because of this; for example, we were asked to analyse some cribra orbitalia lesions and say what stage of healing we thought they were in, but were given no examples of what the various stages actually looked like, so I had to google it, which just led to a bunch of really technical papers that I didn’t really understand. So that part was frustrating for me, because I’d rather be given too much information than not enough. But then again, I really know nothing about osteology other than what I’ve read on your blog (I just think bones are cool!), so I’m sure someone with background knowledge wouldn’t have had any trouble. The problem was that I think it was billed as a beginner level course, but it felt like it wasn’t, really. But it was interesting!

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