London: “Wounded: Conflict, Casualties, and Care” @ the Science Museum

dsc00120I was originally intending on mentioning this exhibit at the end of the “Robots” post, because I thought there was no way I was going to have very much to say about “Robots” other than “there were a shitload of robots.” But then I ended up running on for 1400+ words, as I do, and whilst I didn’t want to spend two weeks just talking about temporary exhibits at the Science Museum, neither did I want to shortchange “Wounded” because it really was a very nice little exhibition.  So here we are.

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“Wounded” opened in summer 2016, and will run until January 2018.  It is a free exhibition, but is somewhat hidden on what they call “Floor G,” which is not actually the ground floor, rather, up a short flight of stairs from the ground floor (I think there is lift access, but probably only from one particular set of lifts, because the Science Museum is built weirdly like that). This “hiddenness” is probably a good thing, because it is blissfully quiet up there compared to the rest of the museum (for the most part…bit of foreshadowing there).  (For real, don’t underestimate the value of a quiet gallery in the Science Museum, because it is normally absolutely crawling with school groups, and the place gets loud!  I briefly worked there some years ago (temp job during the London Olympics), and would spend my breaks retreating to either the Wellcome galleries on the 4th and 5th floors, or if I didn’t have time to get up there (because they can only be accessed by one set of lifts, or a hard-to-find flight of stairs), I’d go to this strange old-fashioned gallery on the 2nd or 3rd floor that was just full of old-timey farming dioramas, and never had anyone in there.  I’m not even sure if it still exists, to be honest, but its silence was much appreciated at the time.)

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Anyway, “Wounded” tells the story of medicine in the First World War, which is basically exactly the sort of thing I’m interested in (I guess more specifically it’s meant to be medicine at the Battle of the Somme, hence the July 2016 start date, but it seemed to cover medicine throughout the war years. I’m not sure whether this exhibit has any connection with Emily Mayhew’s book of the same name, which I just started reading, as they cover the same subject matter, but I don’t recall seeing any mention of it inside the exhibit.  Then again, I might not have noticed, because I didn’t know that the book existed until I spotted a copy at the library last week). Where I think “Robots” failed a bit by having the quality of the signage not quite match up to the glories of the robots on display, here I think the Science Museum got things just right, because the amount of text relative to artefacts was just perfect.  And it was really interesting stuff, too!

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The first room dealt mainly with the reactions of soldiers to war, and included a good selection of “lucky charms” that they carried with them into battle (I thought the black cat pin was cute, but a rather curious choice as a good luck symbol).  It also had an early gas mask, and mentioned that soldiers who weren’t familiar with them would often panic from the chemical smell coming from the gas masks themselves, believing that they weren’t working.  Because, as the exhibit said, gas attacks did just as much to destroy morale as they did bodies.

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The next room was probably the most interesting (to me, anyway). It was about battlefield medicine, in particular the four different stages of the casualty evacuation chain, from getting hauled off the field by stretcher bearers (who were trained in basic first aid), going to a dressing station (where they would do their best to stabilise a patient, but were really only equipped to deal with relatively minor injuries), progressing to a casualty clearing station (located behind the front lines, these could perform major operations, such as limb amputations), and finally to an actual hospital – typically a hospital ship or train would transport the patient back to Britain for further treatment or convalescence (the hospital trains were a necessity because incoming troops and supplies took priority over wounded soldiers, so sometimes trains carrying casualties would have to wait for days to move along the tracks, and the soldiers could easily die en route if the trains weren’t fully medically equipped).  This was where the exhibit probably related most to the Somme specifically, because early in the war, on the Western Front, casualty clearing stations were the first port of call for medical treatment, and they were really more for minor things like changing dressings, rather than performing operations. Any serious injuries would have to be dealt with in hospitals away from the battlefield, but so many men were dying before reaching this point that the RAMC realised there had to be a better way.  Thus the four stage system was born, and it was pretty much up and running just in time for the Battle of the Somme.

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The exhibit also discussed medical innovations during the war, such as blood transfusions (doctors were able to store blood thanks to the use of sodium citrate as an anticoagulant), and one technique that actually harked back to the otherwise dark days of Victorian medicine: the Thomas Splint.  Before traction splints were used, 80%(!) of soldiers with fractured femurs ended up dying from their wounds, many before even reaching a dressing station, mainly because the broken bone was located by the femoral artery; when they were being transported by stretcher, it would inevitably be jarred at some point, and it would sever the artery and they’d bleed out. Robert Jones, a Welsh surgeon, realised that a pioneering splinting technique invented by his uncle, Hugh Owen Thomas, the century before, could help stabilise femur wounds during transport; after this splint entered general use, the mortality rate from femur wounds dropped to 16%.

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Then came what should have been the most poignant section of the exhibit; the one dealing with the treatment and rehabilitation of soldiers who had received life-changing injuries. Unfortunately, this was also the point when a group of schoolchildren entered the exhibition, along with their teacher.  However, they weren’t actually looking at the exhibits, or being taught anything.  Rather, they were just running amuck, yelling, and occasionally stopping to point at pictures of injured soldiers, going, “Look, they only have one leg!” and “Look, they’re missing an eye!”  I sincerely hope these children don’t do this when they see disabled people in real life, and I was really annoyed that their teacher was letting them behave like this in a very serious exhibition, and doing nothing to stop it.  These kids were about 7 or 8, so certainly old enough to know better, and it could have been a good opportunity to teach them about compassion, but this teacher was just completely checked out, and didn’t care what they did.  I mean, really, the whole rest of the museum is open for kids to run through and act as obnoxiously as they like, so the teacher couldn’t have kept them out of this one exhibit that they would have had to go out of their way to enter?! OK, rant over.

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Mercifully, they did eventually leave (I was glaring at them the whole time, which might have helped), and I was finally free to give the displays the attention they deserved.  There was a fair bit of material relating to St. Dunstan’s Hospital for blind and wounded soldiers, including Braille watches and typewriters, which were really cool.  These were part of the attempt to help blinded soldiers adapt to their new life by giving them work to do so they could feel useful again.  There was also a collection of scrapbooks with illustrations done by convalescing soldiers, and some information on pioneering plastic surgery techniques developed during the war (though this is covered in more detail at the Hunterian Museum et al, so they didn’t dwell on it here).

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The prosthetics were also very interesting (Wimbledon War Worker’s Depot, which was located up the street from my flat, made prosthetic limbs and splints, though none of these seemed to be from there). Apparently one prosthetic arm from America was particularly in demand because it looked very good, but only officers could afford to buy it, and they soon realised that it was too heavy to be of practical use, so most of them ended up mouldering away in drawers somewhere. Siegfried Sassoon’s poem, “Does it Matter,” was printed on one of the walls, and it made me tear up a little (poem here, please read!). (I have a soft spot for most of the War Poets, particularly that rather dishy Rupert Brooke (who died from an infected mosquito bite, poor guy. Denied even the “glory” of dying in battle).)

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The exhibit ended with a small display of objects belonging to modern wounded soldiers, including a t-shirt ripped by shrapnel, and a small stuffed monster that one soldier used to personify his PTSD, which helped him cope with it.  There was also a short video about modern soldiers, which I didn’t have time to watch, because I had already spent way longer than anticipated looking around this excellent little exhibit.  Even though I have always been interested in medical history, I still managed to learn quite a lot in “Wounded.”  I think the Science Museum got it just right this time; informative, poignant, and entertaining.  Definitely stop by to see this if you find yourself near the Science Museum; I think it needs a little love!  4/5.



    1. Thank you! I do hope you enjoy it if you go! If you’re interested in other WWI-related exhibitions, I’d also recommend the First World War gallery at the Imperial War Museum, which they just revamped a few years ago. I really enjoyed it when I visited (and the rest of the museum is well-worth seeing too)!

  1. I must admit my heart always sinks when I encounter school parties. I’m an old grouch! Often I’m pleasantly surprised though, but this lot sounds dire.

    1. They were indeed awful, but my tolerance for children is extremely low, so perhaps I’m not the best judge. I think it was especially the fact that the exhibit was in its own secluded area that annoyed me…it would have been one thing if they were just passing through the museum en route to something more child-friendly, but the teacher must have specifically brought them up there and then just let them run wild.

  2. I loved this – what a wonderful exhibit. So well done! I love, love, love the train and trench dioramas. And I was especially fascinated by the aids available for amputees. I hadn’t considered how something so simple as the page turner or the steep sides of the Shipley plate could be so helpful. And of course it was a real treat to see actual prosthetics of the age (funny coincidence us both talking about them this past week) – just a shame they weren’t more affordable for regular enlisted men.

    1. I thought it was a weird coincidence too, when I read your post, but great minds and all that. I don’t recall seeing any Canadian prosthetics from the companies you mentioned…of course I went to the exhibition before I read your post, but I’m still pretty sure that the one American prosthetic arm was the only one from North America. Actually, I was most interested to see all the prosthetics from Queen Mary’s Hospital in Roehampton, because it’s not far from where I live, but is unfortunately located just inside the Borough of Wandsworth, rather than Merton, so I wasn’t able to research it for the project I volunteer on. I really wanted to do something related to medicine, but all Merton had to offer was a few hospitals that weren’t doing anything particularly pioneering or interesting, and VADs, which someone else had already claimed, so I got stuck with combatants. Not that I regret it, because I’m quite fond of my lads, but I find medical history endlessly fascinating (as you can probably tell), and it would have been nice to do something with that too!

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