medical history

Glasgow: The Hunterian Museum

Having finished with the excellent “William Hunter and the Anatomy of the Modern Museum,” we headed over to the original Hunterian Museum (well, not its first incarnation in London, or the first one at the University of Glasgow, which opened in 1807, but original in the sense of being the first of the Hunterian museums to exist, before the Art Gallery et al were a thing. It’s been in its current location since 1870), located on the other side of the University of Glasgow campus. It is on the fourth floor of a big old magnificent building (the Gilbert Scott Building, named after its designer), and the architecture of the museum itself is pretty great too. It reminded me of a Tudor banqueting hall.
  
If you come in from the side entrance, as we did, there is no front desk (all the Hunterian museums have free entry), but there is an introductory gallery with some information about Hunter’s life and the original museum before it jumps right on in to a mishmash of everything, so at least we knew we were in the right place. The first gallery of the museum proper was dominated by an exhibition about old Roman road markers that I paid approximately 0.5% of my attention to, because right next to it was a case full of medical specimens in jars, and next to that was a case of interesting zoological specimens. There were a lot of people gathered around this area, presumably because it was awesome, but it was worth the wait (for people to move out of the way for Marcus could take photos) or, more accurately where I was concerned, worth elbowing my way in (because screw waiting).
  
There was also Hunter’s chest of drawers from his first museum on Great Windmill Street that originally housed his insect collection, and whilst I sure as shit don’t want an insect collection, it would be a lovely home for something not gross, like maybe a collection of old Georgian cartoons, if I was lucky enough to own such a thing (I mean, Hunter totally could have, since he was alive then, but obviously we don’t have the same priorities. Well, some of the same priorities). And hidden in one corner was the chair that students used to have to sit on during their oral exams at the university (it was very Mr. Burns “I have a chair at Springfield University”-esque), which apparently they still use for a couple of degree qualifications (I can’t remember exactly which ones, but I don’t think they sounded very interesting, otherwise I probably would have tried to enrol on the spot).
  
The lower level main gallery feels pretty much like the Horniman, with a mix of taxidermy, fossils (not a fan of that giant millipede thing, as you can probably tell), musical instruments, and delightfully Scottish-accented pottery (see below). This was all great, but for me, the upper level outshone it by far. This is where the collections of Lord Kelvin and Joseph Lister, both of whom taught at the university, were kept.
  
Kelvin’s stuff was interesting enough, but for a medical history nerd like me, Lister’s side was where it was at. They had a flask of his actual urine for god’s sake! (It was disturbingly dark in colour, but he did boil it before sealing it, so one hopes that was the result of the boiling process (or the 150+ years it has spent in that flask) and not something horribly wrong with Lister’s kidneys. He lived to the age of 84, so he must have been in fairly good shape!) And of course there was his pioneering carbolic acid steam apparatus that he used in some of the first antiseptic operations. And there were a number of other medical instruments and specimens thrown in, in case you didn’t get enough downstairs (I certainly didn’t).
  
How hilarious/creepy is that obstetrical training doll?! I also loved the plaque dedicated to a former “keeper” of the collection embedded in one of the walls. I wonder if I can talk them into doing that for me at the museum where I work…(though I certainly don’t want to work there for another 35 years to earn one, like John Young did!)
  
I had noticed another set of doors in the first gallery when we passed through, and I was hoping that meant there was another gallery, but sadly, the doors just led to the fabulous main staircase that we had missed on the way in, due to initially entering at the ground floor (the stairs let you out on the second or third floor, but that’s cool too, because we got to walk through a pillared courtyard covered in lights (I assume for Christmas, but who knows, maybe they’re up all year) and also finally stumbled on some much needed public toilets, which was great, because there aren’t any in the museum itself). Whilst the Hunterian wasn’t quite as big as I was hoping, it certainly was an enjoyable museum. I really love old fashioned museums that have a little bit of everything in them, and this fit the bill (it was much more varied than the photos I’ve chosen show, since I’ve mostly focused on medical history to the detriment of everything else there), with the added benefit of the collections of Lister and William Hunter. 3.5/5.
   
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Glasgow: “William Hunter and the Anatomy of the Modern Museum” @ Hunterian Art Gallery

In honour of our 10th anniversary, which was in late November, and in keeping with our tradition with heading up north for anniversaries (mainly because I’m not keen on staying in the countryside (too much walking!) and there isn’t much else south of London besides the coast, which is definitely not a good idea in the winter), Marcus and I decided to spend a long weekend in Glasgow, as neither of us had ever been. This not only gave me an opportunity to meet Anabel from the Glasgow Gallivanter in person (photos in a future post) and eat deep fried Mars bars and a stupid amount of Tunnock’s Caramel Logs, it also finally allowed me to visit the Glasgow Hunterian, something I’ve been wanting to do for years.

  

The London Hunterian, named after John Hunter, is one of my favourite museums, so I had high hopes for the Glasgow Hunterian, which was founded by John’s brother, William. Both brothers were in the medical field (John was a surgeon, William was a physician and obstetrician), both were raised and trained in Scotland, and both had anatomy schools in London. And of course, they both founded museums, though I have to say that William’s was far more ambitious in scope than John’s. Whereas John’s museum was primarily a receptacle for his collection of anatomical specimens, human and zoological (not that there’s anything wrong with that), William’s museum had a little bit of everything, more in the vein of the Ashmolean or the Smithsonian. Originally housed on Great Windmill Street in London, after his death the collection was moved to Glasgow, and is the oldest museum in Scotland.
  
Today, the Glasgow Hunterian is a collection of four separate museums, all located around the campus of the University of Glasgow: an Art Gallery, Anatomical Museum, Zoological Museum, and the general Hunterian, which is probably the closest in terms of the scope of its collections to the original museum. The Anatomical Museum is open by appointment only, and the Zoological Museum isn’t open on weekends, so we were only able to see the Art Gallery and Hunterian. Because there’s quite a lot to say about each, this post will focus exclusively on the Art Gallery, which is free to visit, even the special exhibition!
  
Given its name, it’s a safe bet that the Art Gallery normally houses art, but at the time of my visit, it was what would have been William Hunter’s 300th birthday, so the museum was featuring a special exhibition called “William Hunter and the Anatomy of the Modern Museum,” (which runs until 6 January 2019) about Hunter’s life and work, with an accompanying exhibit called “Strange Foreign Bodies” upstairs. The very nice woman at the front desk actually almost apologised to us that there wasn’t art in the main gallery, and I wanted to say, “but you don’t understand, I like medical history SOOOOO much better than art,” but I didn’t want to scare her off, so I left it.
  
But yeah, this was probably the ideal time for me to visit, as this exhibition was the best possible thing I could imagine being here. It was broken up into ten rooms roughly chronologically tracing Hunter’s life, not counting the introductory gallery, which provided a timeline of personal and historical events during Hunter’s lifespan (1718-1783).
  
The exhibition still got off to a fairly arty start with paintings of some of Hunter’s friends and contemporaries, along with some of his correspondence and book collection. Hunter attended the University of Glasgow and befriended a number of prominent Scots, including David Hume and William Cullen. In 1740, Hunter moved to London and studied obstetrics with the hilariously named William Smellie (despite his name, or perhaps because of it, he is pretty famous though. I remember hearing about him when I was doing my Master’s). The room on this portion of Hunter’s life contained a number of medical textbooks, including Smellie’s, and some great anatomical drawings, including one by my personal favourite anatomist Frederik Ruysch. But obviously the best thing here was the wax model of the flayed man shown at the start of the post, made by Hunter and based off of the body of an executed criminal. So amazing!
  
Since Hunter was into both anatomy and obstetrics, it was only natural that he would want to make some anatomical models of pregnant women, and fortunately for him (not so much for the women), 13 of the women under his care died in various stages of pregnancy (not all at once, since that presumably wouldn’t really be something he would want to commemorate and brag about, though I have read an article that did some statistics on maternal death rates and determined that it would have been unlikely he could have gotten so many perfect specimens of each stage of pregnancy, so there might have been some shady stuff going on. I’m not sure if I agree with that, since he did his studies over a twenty year period and maternal death rates weren’t exactly low back then, but he was undoubtedly involved with grave robbers in some capacity, as pretty much all anatomists back then had to be), allowing him to make gorgeous wax models of their wombs. As you have probably noticed, this was the rare medical exhibition that allowed photography, so I can show you all of these wonderful things (albeit with not so wonderful lighting).
  
He also loved making wet preparations, a technique only pioneered the century before by the previously mentioned Frederik Ruysch (there’s a reason he’s my favourite), so there were plenty of those in here too, and some of them were downright beautiful, especially the inflated portions of intestine that had been injected with wax to show off the veins. Actually, due to his brother John’s prowess in making anatomical specimens, this was one of the few projects they collaborated on, before opening separate (and competing) medical schools. I do wish there had been a bit more in here on William’s relationship with John, but if they didn’t work that much together, I guess there was only a limited amount they could say.
  
Hunter was also close with George Stubbs, famous for painting a kangaroo based on the skins and descriptions given to him by dishy Joseph Banks after Cook’s first voyage (all of the artists on the expedition having died en route, though Sydney Parkinson did produce a sketch of a kangaroo before he died), and they worked together to produce Stubbs’s Anatomy of a Horse, amongst other anatomical paintings.
  
On the subject of Cook, there were a number of objects here from Cook’s voyages that were given to Hunter’s museum, as well as a whole room full of gross insects (I didn’t spend a lot of time in there). The last few galleries covered the establishment of the museum in London, which, William Hunter having never married nor produced heirs, he wished to leave to the University of Glasgow after he died (he didn’t come up to Scotland much after moving to London, but apparently he retained some emotional ties, even if he didn’t actually want to live there. Kind of like me and Cleveland). The last couple of rooms were mostly art, but there were a few neat things, including the certificate given to those who had completed a course of training at Hunter’s medical school (god, I would love one of those certificates), Hunter’s death mask, and a pretty cool chart showing all the branches of “science” by 18th century standards (apparently you can be a scientist of black magic. I guess I’m a scientist then? (Just kidding, sort of)).
  
Having finished with this rather fabulous exhibition, we headed upstairs to see “Strange Foreign Bodies.”  I was immediately weirded out upon opening the exhibition guide and seeing a number of quotes from my MA dissertation advisor on one of the artworks (she scared me, and I haven’t really thought of her in years, so wasn’t expecting it), but was also weirded out by the art, which mostly seemed only vaguely connected to medicine and also not necessarily connected to the descriptions of it in the guide. I did however like the collection of painted skulls entitled “Family Conversation Piece,” and there was a video of a breathing robot one of the artists had created of herself, which was cool, but pretty creepy (below right).
  
“William Hunter and the Anatomy of the Modern Museum” had a great punny title, a fantastic collection of specimens in jars and anatomical models, a very detailed exhibition guide, and enough other stuff to appeal to those who aren’t huge fans of medical bits like I am. I definitely recommend seeing this if you can, and I’m pretty sure I enjoyed this about 1000x more than I would have the art normally here (not knocking art, but I obviously really prefer medical history). 4.5/5.
“Strange Foreign Bodes” was OK, but it wasn’t very big, and it’s definitely not a must see like the main exhibition. 1.5/5.

This cartoon made me laugh for about ten minutes. I have a weird sense of humour (which is not news to anyone who makes it through one of my posts).

London: “Living with Buildings” @ the Wellcome Collection

This is from the Global Clinic, not Living with Buildings, but I think you’ll agree it is a more striking image than the entrance of Living with Buildings, which is why it is serving as the introductory photo.

“Living with Buildings” is the Wellcome Collection’s latest offering, which runs until 3 March 2019, and I popped along to see it a few weeks ago since I was in the neighbourhood anyway for “Anglo Saxon Kingdoms.” I’m not sure if the Wellcome could have picked a more boring name for this exhibition if they’d tried (at least for those of us who aren’t really into architecture), but I was hoping the content would prove better than the lacklustre name. Even the exhibition description was fairly vague, being simply that it was about how buildings affect our mental and physical health.

The exhibition is located in the Wellcome’s main gallery on the ground floor and is free, as their exhibitions always are, and doesn’t allow photographs, as their exhibitions mostly don’t. We were there a little bit later in the day than usual, which I think was a good time to visit as the crowds were much less than what they would have been at lunchtime (or people were just staying away because of the dull name). The exhibition opened with Charles Booth’s famous poverty maps of London (made in 1886-1903) showing the relative wealth of each street of London based on Booth’s interviews with its inhabitants (he’s pretty judgy too, as the poorest people were listed as “vicious, semi-criminal”), which are always interesting, even though I’ve seen them many times before.

Charles Booth’s Map of London, LSE.

This was one of the Wellcome’s more open layouts, and though there were a few little nooks and recesses, everything was basically in one large gallery. The exhibition appeared to be arranged more by topic than chronologically, and covered subject matter from the Victorian era, when people began to suspect that living in smoky, polluted cities might not be great for one’s health, to the Grenfell Tower fire just last year.

Letchworth Garden City Poster, First Garden City Museum.

One of the nooks was about the rise of the “garden city” in the late Victorian era, which began when some of the more, shall we say, benevolent employers founded model villages for their employees to live in. I get that the intention behind it was mostly good – giving the employees a clean environment to live in away from the pollution of the cities, which also reduced their commute and gave them access to opportunities for recreation and self-improvement, but personally I find something a little creepy about it. I like the people I work with, but I don’t particularly want to live next door to them (you would never be able to weasel out of work functions, since they would know exactly where you were), and I sure as hell don’t want my boss overseeing what I do in my spare time. The Cadbury brothers, the founders of Bournville, even had a pamphlet published with rules for their employees to live by, going so far as to tell them how to sleep (single beds only) and how to breathe, which is dreadful (but I’m fine with the emphasis on cleanliness, given that these people were making chocolate)! Some of the posters in this section (reminiscent of old Tube posters – they may have been designed by the same people) did make the garden cities look awful tempting though (if you could ignore all the paternalistic garbage)! Even Henry Wellcome, founder of the Wellcome Collection, tried to get in on the action by designing Wellcomeville, a city that would have been built around a pharmaceutical factory and research laboratory, but it fell through in the end, and the research facility was just a stand-alone building in Bloomsbury.

Model of a hospital promoting the King Edward’s Hospital Fund, Wellcome Collection.

There were quite a few films in here featuring what appeared to be interviews with inhabitants of various tower blocks, but the only one I actually sat down and watched was Catherine Yass’s film “Royal London,” showing the demolition of the old hospital. I could only watch a small part of it though, as the camera kept spiralling up and down staircases, and I started feeling a bit motion sick. I was glad to step outside of the film room and examine the huge scale model of a hospital from the 1930s, which was used to raise money for King Edward’s Hospital Fund (it was named after Edward VII, and carried on long after his reign (it actually still exists today under the name King’s Fund), rather than being a short-lived scheme of Edward VIII. I think Edward 8 was probably too busy canoodling with Wallis Simpson to have time for causes, though I suppose the same could be said of Eddy 7 and his many, many mistresses). Queen Mary donated some lace handkerchiefs which were used to make bedspreads for two of the miniature beds, but I can’t help but think that a donation of actual money would have been much more useful (I seem to recall that Mary was notoriously cheap). The hospital scale model sure was neat though; it had little doll versions of patients, doctors, and nurses occupying the miniature hospital rooms, and even a tiny x-ray machine and humorous murals decorating the hospital walls. I’d take that over a dollhouse any day!

Finsbury Health Centre, Wellcome Collection.

Some other things I found interesting were the information about the rise of tower blocks, which were meant to be the wondrous self-contained living of the future, only for the shops within to either never open or fail and the buildings to become dilapidated due to shoddy construction and attract criminal activity; the posters for the Finsbury Health Centre contrasting clean modern living with dirty unhealthy old Britain (released during the war, these were actually banned by Churchill because he thought it was both an insult to pre-war Britain, and it would damage morale if people realised they were living under shitty conditions); and particularly the cartoons showing the differences between old dust-trap buildings, and new, presumably tidier ones (I totally look like the guy in the before version, who sat at work all day with his hand on his head because he had a headache from breathing in the noxious, unventilated fumes. Considering I work in a building that was built in 1904, has bars on the windows, and is rife with asbestos, it’s really not so surprising I get headaches almost every time I’m there).

Paris Montparnasse 1993, Andreas Gurnsky.

And, in a depressing denouement, the exhibition showed how all these “brilliant” ideas from the 20th century about building for the future have mostly been a failure, and resulted in downright tragedy in the case of Grenfell Tower. There was a particularly chilling letter written by a tenants’ activist group a year or two before the fire expressing concerns about the new cladding and the fire safety procedures that instructed tenants to remain in their flats in case of fire, which they warned could lead to disaster, as indeed they did. Even the examples of the new developments in creating light and airy environments for hospital patients, which were plopped right before the exit and I think were meant to cheer us up a bit after the Grenfell stuff, were still a bit grim architecturally, though I suspect I am just really not a fan of modern architecture.

Charles Williams, 1813. A Nonchalant Doctor dancing a jig, Wellcome.

I thought the exhibition was certainly more interesting than its name had led me to believe, but was mostly just rather depressing (except for the above cartoon, which genuinely made me laugh out loud), as it appears that we still haven’t found a good solution to the problems of city living. I’m pretty sure almost no one wants to live in a tower block, but houses are completely unaffordable in London for all but the very wealthy, so until someone comes up with a better solution, that is the sad reality of the situation. I’ll give “Living with Buildings” 3/5, since it wasn’t quite as large as I was expecting, and was really rather dispiriting, though I guess I can’t entirely blame the Wellcome for the latter issue.

The temporary exhibition on the first floor of the Wellcome Collection has also changed over, and is no longer the delightfully creepy “Teeth,” but is instead a companion exhibit to “Living with Buildings” called “Global Clinic.” And that’s literally what it was – a new, mobile clinic design set up inside the gallery space, which will be deployed somewhere in need of an emergency clinic once the exhibition has ended. It is meant to be an improvement on tents and shipping containers, which are currently mostly what are used in disaster situations, and it certainly looked respectively more stable and lighter than those options. However, without the accoutrements of a clinic set up inside, it was literally just looking at a building structure, which was not terribly exciting. There were a few toy designs by students that were intended for use in developing countries in one corner of the gallery, and these were slightly more engaging, though not as much as they could have been if you were actually allowed to play with them. I think the Global Clinic is a good idea, but it’s not necessarily something that needed to physically be here, since although it is an eye-catching structure, seeing it in person wasn’t significantly more interesting than just reading about it. If you’re short on time, I think it’s certainly safe to just breeze right through it or give it a miss entirely! 1.5/5.

London: “The Last Tsar” @ the Science Museum

Like many people, I think, I am fascinated by the lives and barbaric deaths of Nicholas II, Alexandra, and their children. As I think I’ve said before, I even signed up for a Russian history class as an undergrad on the assumption that we would discuss the tsars, only to be disappointed when it was nothing but communism, communism, communism (I mean, communism is interesting too, but if that’s all you want to talk about, you should maybe call the class Soviet History instead to at least give people a clue. Not that I’m still salty about that C or anything…). So I was pretty excited about the Science Museum’s new temporary exhibition “The Last Tsar: Blood and Revolution,” which also promised to contain a good dose of medical history, one of my favourite things. Admission to the exhibition is free, but you must book a ticket, which we found easy enough to do online on the day of the exhibition, shortly before we arrived. Normally I like to visit exhibitions in early-mid afternoon so I can avoid being caught in rush hour on the Tube on the way back, but on this particular afternoon, we were planning on going out to dinner after visiting the museum, so we booked the last slot of the day, at 4 (the museum closes at 6), and found the downstairs galleries of the museum virtually deserted, which was a rare treat. There were a handful of people in the exhibition, but I’m sure it was nothing like as crowded as it would have been during the day. Unfortunately, photography was not allowed, so I’ll post pictures of the objects I can find, and you’ll have to use your imagination for the rest.

Nicholas and George, from Wikimedia Commons.

The exhibition began with an introduction about who the Romanovs were, and their connection to the British Royal Family (as you can see from that picture of George V and Nicholas II side by side, they look eerily like twins, despite only being cousins, though George favoured snappier shoes (as do I!)), as well as a collection of bucolic photographs of the children from the worry-free days before WWI. Well, not exactly worry-free, because of course the Tsarevich Alexei had haemophilia, and Tsarina Alexandra had quite a few health problems of her own, but still, idyllic compared to being brutally gunned down after months of imprisonment. It was actually Alexei’s health problems that led to the royal family withdrawing from the court in the first place to try to improve Alexei’s health with frequent trips to the country, and it was this disconnection from the people combined with their desire to maintain an authoritarian government that caused the discontent that led to revolution, so if Alexei had not suffered from haemophilia, the world may well have been a very different place.

One of Alexandra’s maternity dresses. Copyright State Hermitage Museum.

The second gallery discussed Alexandra’s medical issues in more detail, as well as the kind of medical care that was available in Russia at the time. Apparently health care there was fairly progressive for the era, provided by a mix of the church, charities, and local government, and they were moving away from things like restraining people suffering from mental illness. Unless you were a political prisoner, of course, in which case you would be put in chains in a dark cell and essentially left to rot. Many political prisoners chose to commit suicide rather than continue to suffer under appalling conditions, as we learned in a small, somewhat incongruous section that included photos of the horrific-looking cells. Of course, Alexandra went through none of this pre-Revolution, though she did struggle with aftereffects from her pregnancies in her all-encompassing need to produce a male heir (their first four children were all girls) – probably a combination of sciatica and postpartum depression, with a few other unpleasant side effects thrown in. Since mainstream medicine couldn’t always help, she ended up turning to folk medicine, especially in the case of her son Alexei and their relationship with the controversial Rasputin.

Imperial Steel Faberge egg. Copyright Moscow Kremlin Museums.

The next two sections were about Alexei and the effect his haemophilia would have on the royal family (it was discovered very early on, when his umbilical cord wouldn’t stop bleeding), and the First World War and its impact on Russia. Of course, WWI was another major catalyst for the Revolution, due to the heavy losses suffered by the Russian Army and growing dissatisfaction with the war, for which the royal family largely took the blame. However, although they didn’t suffer during the war along with their people, they did help with the war effort, in particular Olga and Tatiana, the two oldest daughters, who volunteered in a Red Cross hospital. Thanks to the Romanovs’ closeness to their British royal relatives (both Alexandra and Nicholas were related to them. They were second cousins and Alexandra was Victoria’s favourite granddaughter), there was also a British hospital in Petrograd during WWI, financed by contributions from both sets of royals. Because of course they had to stick some Faberge eggs in somewhere, there were two in this room, including a very cool one made from Imperial steel and resting on bullet cases, which was filled with a miniature easel depicting Nicholas and Alexei surveying the troops. As part of one of many, many medical treatments over the years, Alexei saw a doctor who took some x-rays of him, and fascinated by this, Nicholas and Alexandra both had their hands x-rayed, which were on display here (fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it) they were all killed before having to worry about the high doses of radiation present in the early x-raying process).

Alexandra’s radiograph. Copyright Harvard Medical Library.

The final two galleries covered their murder and the attempts to solve it over the years, starting with Nikolai Sokolov’s 1920 investigation, right up to modern DNA analysis of the remains found in Ekaterinburg. Their murders are probably the part of their lives I’d read about most extensively, so it was very cool getting to see some of the artefacts found as a result of the investigation, including clothing and jewellery belonging to the Romanov family, and letters from Sokolov’s investigation (Sokolov was a royalist, and the Bolsheviks weren’t well entrenched enough in 1920 to stop him from carrying his investigation out. He was assisted by the Romanov children’s former English tutor, Charles Gibbs, who was so close to the family that he agreed to follow them into exile, and upon his return to England became a Russian Orthodox priest and turned his chapel into a shrine to the family). The Soviets did admit to killing Nicholas II in 1926, but it wasn’t until after the collapse of the USSR in 1991 that they admitted to the murder of the rest of the family.

Nicholas’s radiograph. Copyright Harvard Medical Library.

The modern DNA tests were assisted by Prince Philip, who is related to the Romanovs through his maternal line (his great-grandmother was Princess Alice, Victoria’s daughter, who was Alexandra’s mother) and agreed to provide a sample for testing, which proved a match. The bodies of Alexei and one of his sisters (DNA testing can’t narrow it down any more than that) were the last to be found, in 2007. There were facial reconstructions based on their skulls here on display, which looked better than these sorts of things usually do, though it’s presumably a hell of a lot easier to do a facial reconstruction when you know roughly what you’re aiming for. The whole family have been canonised in the Russian Orthodox Church (which is not without controversy, but the exhibition didn’t mention anything about that), and all except the final two children to be found have been given an official state funeral.

Red Cross Faberge egg. Copyright Cleveland Museum of Art (!).

Although none of this was anything earth-shattering (and some things weren’t really touched on, like all the Anastasia imposters in the first half of the 20th century), it was nonetheless a good exhibition, and I learned some things I didn’t know about the health of the rest of the family and Alexei’s specific type of haemophilia, which is apparently the rarest type (type B). It is a sad story, as Nicholas may have helped bring about his own downfall, but communism would prove even worse for the Russian people than Nicholas’s reign, and even though Nicholas and Alexandra seemed like unpleasant people in many ways, that doesn’t mean they deserved to die, especially not their children (I do put some of the blame for that on George V for refusing to allow them into Britain when they begged for his help, though they kind of blew it themselves by not getting out earlier when they had the chance. All of these royals come off like jerks). I think the section about political prisoners, whilst interesting, didn’t really fit in with the theme of the rest of it other than to try to establish a reason for the royal family to have been hated, and probably would have worked better in an exhibition about the Revolution specifically rather than one that aimed to be mainly about the Romanov family, especially since it otherwise shied away from controversial subjects. Still, for a free exhibition, I can’t really complain, and I certainly don’t regret going to see it. 3.5/5.

London: Teeth @ the Wellcome Collection

I was both excited and apprehensive about seeing the Wellcome Collection’s latest exhibition: “Teeth.” Excited, because the publicity material they released before the exhibition made it look great; apprehensive, because despite my general love for all things gory and medical, historic dentistry creeps me out (even though I’m not really afraid of dentists. Orthodontists, yes (my orthodontist’s awfulness had to be experienced to be believed), but not really dentists. But if you are afraid of dentists, this may not be the post for you). But in the end excitement won out, and I strolled on over to the Wellcome after I visited Cook at the BL.

  

“Teeth” is in the same first floor gallery that “Ayurvedic Man” was in (“Somewhere in Between” is still in the main gallery), and was a big, open, inviting space, with display cases mainly along the walls to make room for historic dental equipment in the middle of the room. I seem to have a knack for finding George Washington’s dentures in various museums (really, more pairs of dentures than you would think the man would have owned), so of course I was immediately on the lookout for some here, and I wasn’t disappointed. Poor old George and his omnipresent dentures. The exhibition theorised that George may have always looked rather stern in portraits because he was straining to keep his mouth closed – upper and lower dentures used to be held together with springs, which would have required some powerful jaw muscles to close!
  
He wasn’t the only famous person whose dental apparatuses were here either. There was also Napoleon’s toothbrush, which is interesting, because there are widely conflicting reports of Napoleon’s dental hygiene out there. His biographer claimed he was fastidious about brushing his teeth and had a beautiful white smile, whereas his contemporaries said his teeth were black and rotting. The pristine state of his toothbrush leads me to believe that his contemporaries probably were correct. Even more intriguing than Napoleon’s toothbrush was the upper plate belonging to Edmund Burke, politician and philosopher. It seemed to indicate that he had a cleft palate, as there was an extra piece on top to fill in a gap in the mouth. Burke famously wrote an essay on beauty in which he claimed that imperfection could add to the beauty of something – perhaps this was something he had firsthand experience of?
  
Because the subject matter was teeth, which is something many people have anxieties about (the exhibition also discussed why this was, and a lot of it did probably have to do with the horrors of pre-20th century dentistry, but some of it is also just the nature of teeth. After all, they are the only part of the skeleton that is exposed during your lifetime (barring any horrific accidents)), obviously some of the objects here were going to be a bit, well, creepy. The creepiest by far were the phantom heads that dentistry students used for practice. I think they would have been less scary if they were actually just a skull, because something about the wooden block with real teeth in it is the stuff of nightmares (as is the even scarier face with metal jaws filled with real teeth, which you’ll see at the bottom of this post, if you’re brave enough!). The display about dentures was less overtly disturbing, but it explained how when cheaper, better looking dentures made of porcelain became available, they were so popular that some people used to get all their teeth pulled in their twenties to avoid the hassle and expense of dental care in their adult lives, which really gives me the willies (Roald Dahl was one of those, and though I dearly love his books, his dentures are always one of the first things to cross my mind when I think of him (much like with George Washington)).
  
Fortunately, my pal Binaca squirrel was there to lighten the mood (I’ve never used Binaca, but it makes me think of that episode of Seinfeld where Elaine sprays Joe Davola in the eyes with cherry Binaca to escape his apartment), as were the letters both to and from the tooth fairy. I must have had quite a good tooth fairy, because there was usually some kind of small gift to accompany the two shiny new 50 cent pieces (I seem to remember it usually being a Disney VHS when I was a kid, but I didn’t lose my last baby tooth until I was 13 and though the tooth fairy still came, it felt more half-assed, not that I blame her) and a note carefully written on heart-shaped construction paper that was folded up small enough to fit inside the little plastic treasure chest that held my tooth. Some of the other tooth fairies were slightly more droll than mine, and their letters had me cracking up (even though the thought of a tooth fairy accidentally removing all the teeth from children who slept with their heads under the pillow would have given me nightmares when I was a kid, so probably for the best my tooth fairy was of a kinder, gentler variety).
   
Other objects of note included an aluminum pair of dentures made by a WWII POW who’d had his good dentures smashed by a Japanese guard (I was relieved that he’d already had dentures, because I know they often just smashed out your actual teeth), a horrible wooden chair for strapping reluctant patients to (which, before anesthesia, was pretty much everyone (shown second photo in the post)), and a number of hilarious historic ads for dentists, toothpaste, etc.
  
And I have to say, I don’t know if the main intention of this exhibition was to promote modern dentistry, but it definitely made me want to make a preventative visit to the dentist (especially the poster describing in great detail exactly how decay takes your teeth if you don’t visit the dentist often enough), so much so that I booked an overdue appointment (only by six months or so, but still) a few days after seeing this. Some of the objects on display were pretty freaky, and if you’re already scared of dentists, this exhibition might not help (though surely at least seeing how much worse it used to be would give you some perspective), but I thought it was fascinating, even though I ended up compulsively running my tongue over my teeth the whole time I was in there (and I don’t think I was the only one doing it either). 4/5.

Budapest: The Semmelweiss Museum

I recently had to switch two of my working days around, which created a surprise five day weekend (without having to take time off!), and to make the most of it, I decided to try to book a trip. All the last minute deals appeared to be for places like Brussels and Frankfurt (nothing against either place, but I’ve already been to Brussels a few times, and Frankfurt seems like more of a business destination), so when I saw a deal for three nights in Budapest, I scooped it up. I had actually been to Budapest once before, about ten years ago, but that trip was just a series of misfortunes that meant I didn’t end up seeing very much, so I was happy to go back and explore more in depth.
  
Actually, I wanted to go to Budapest for three main reasons: 1) To eat lots of kurtoskalacs, aka chimney cake, which I dearly love, but resent being asked to pay a fiver for at Christmas markets in the UK; 2) Visit the Columbo statue, because I have been weirdly into Columbo the last few months (probably because it’s on pretty much all day Sunday, and Sunday tends to be my chilling and TV watching day, so I’ve caught a lot simply because there was nothing else on, and got hooked); and 3) Visit the Semmelweiss Museum. This post will of course be about the last of those three ambitions, though you’ll hear more about the other two in a later post.
  
I’ve always felt bad for Ignaz Semmelweiss – any way you look at it, the man got a raw deal. He accidentally stumbled onto germ theory when he noticed that a colleague who died from sepsis after cutting himself during a dissection had the same symptoms as the women who died from puerperal fever (without directly understanding why – he thought “cadaverous material” was the problem, and I mean, it was, but not for the reasons he thought), which allowed him to dramatically slash the mortality rate in his maternity ward (by 90%, though the hospital he worked at had two maternity wards: one for training doctors and one for training midwives, and the midwives’ ward had much lower mortality rates all along, because midwives didn’t dissect cadavers) when he started forcing his medical students to wash their hands in chlorinated water. He then published his findings, and instead of the medical community viewing them as revolutionary or at least intriguing, they instead accused him of fabricating results (Pasteur and Lister eventually confirmed his findings, but too late to have done Semmelweiss any good).  Semmelweiss was eventually committed to an insane asylum due to what may have been early onset dementia or depression, though the antagonism of his fellow doctors probably didn’t help his mental state, and he died only a fortnight after being committed as a result of being beaten by the guards (it actually is quite a tragic story). Therefore, I was excited to see his museum, hoping he would finally get the more exalted treatment he deserved (and of course, I was hoping to see some grisly medical stuff too).
  
Unfortunately, I would wind up somewhat disappointed on both counts. We managed to find the museum without too much trouble (it’s on the Buda side of the river, near a tram stop) located on the first floor of a building looking out on a rather lovely courtyard. Admission is 1000 HUF (just under £3), plus an extra 600 forints for a photo pass, which I always find a bit ridiculous in this day and age, but I suppose they have to make money somehow. I was a little worried that nothing would be in English, but most (probably 80%) of the signs had an English translation, although they did tend to be more concise than the Hungarian version.
  
The first room held the bulk of the grisly stuff, as it were (not much, and not that grisly). There was a re-creation of a shrunken head made from goatskin, a mummified foot or two, and a couple of skulls. There were also some small grotesques, and that rather adorable little anatomical model, but most of it was just medical instruments – a theme that would continue throughout the museum.
  
The second room held a re-creation of Semmelweiss’s parlour, complete with his original furniture and rug, and some of his original books (and apparently some books given to the Hungarian prime minister by George Bush Sr. during his presidency, though they quite clearly weren’t Semmelweiss’s books, since Osler’s Modern Medicine wasn’t published until 1892 (and those copies appear to be an even later edition), and Semmelweiss died in 1865). If I understood the signs correctly (some of them were a little confusing), Semmelweiss lived in this building at one point in time, and I wish more of his house had been preserved. There was also a re-creation of an old pharmacy that appeared to have some staff in white coats working in it, but it was roped off whilst we were there so I’m not sure if they do some sort of living history interaction with visitors or not (though if it was in Hungarian, it wouldn’t have done us much good in the first place).
  
The third room (I was pleased to see there even was a third room, because the museum looked like it was only two rooms from the entrance) had more cool things (and some fairly inexplicable ones like this opium pillow (he has an actual butt hole, and I don’t know why)) like some incredibly detailed wax models of organs (they were beautiful, in a kind of disgusting way, but I had read before visiting that the museum was meant to have an excellent wax anatomical model collection, which had me picturing Anatomical Venuses (you know, those comely women who just happen to have all their guts exposed) rather than organs by themselves).
  
The final gallery (more of a long hallway) was my least favourite, as much of it wasn’t in English, and it was largely just medical instruments and other random bits and bobs. I was disappointed how barely any of the museum actually seemed to be about Semmelweiss – unless I missed something that was only in Hungarian, there was only his room, and one small case of his possessions (including a copy of his skull, which is admittedly cool, though as you can see, the terse label provided no reason why it was there), and that was it. There was barely even any discussion of his accomplishments, so if you didn’t know about what he had achieved before going in to the museum, you sure wouldn’t coming out either.
  
We were headed out the door when we saw a poster that mentioned a temporary exhibition on vaccines, which appeared to be in a room on the ground floor. When we tried to go in, a man came out and stopped us, so we showed him our tickets, which led to a heated discussion in Hungarian between him and another woman who worked there about whether or not we had the right to see the exhibition (honestly, we didn’t care that much, we just didn’t think it would be an issue in the first place, as it didn’t mention anywhere that it cost extra). They eventually decided we could go in, which I was grateful for because that’s where the toilets were, but I don’t know what the official policy is (I don’t think even they know what the official policy is, frankly) so if you visit the museum, you may not be able to do the same.  You wouldn’t be missing much anyway. It felt like a travelling exhibition that had been translated into Hungarian, and contained fairly basic information about Jenner, Salk, Koch, and others that anyone with an interest in the history of medicine would already know about, and no major artefacts of note other than some rad old posters urging Hungarians to be vaccinated (the maternity chair shown below is from the permanent collections). We kind of rushed through because we felt like we were creating a disturbance by even being there.
  
So sadly, the Semmelweiss Museum will not be going on my list of must-see medical museums, but I’m glad we checked it out whilst we were there so at least now I know (I realise that these photos are making it look like they had lots of amazing stuff there, but that is because I’m just showing you the highlights, and not the rows and rows of scalpels and surgical scissors and things. Endless medical instruments may be of interest if you’re actually a doctor or surgeon, but I want stuff in jars)! I think it is worth seeing if you’re already in Budapest and like medical history, but it’s certainly not a destination museum. It probably is better if you just think of it as a general medical museum, because it is the lack of information about Semmelweiss in a museum bearing his name that really disappoints. He deserves better, and I really wish they would have provided some more biographical information, at least about his medical career (actually, the whole museum needed more information – the labels were not descriptive at all, and were sometimes just downright confusing!). 3/5.

London: “Can Graphic Design Save Your Life?”@ the Wellcome Collection

It’s finally autumn (the best season, obviously), and there’s a new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, which is normally exciting in itself, so I should be happy, right? Well, unlike the Wellcome’s usual exhibition themes, which are either inherently fascinating to me (death, forensics, poop), or topics I can at least summon up a spark of interest in (electricity…see what I did there?), this one sounded like a real dud. Graphic design? Sorry, but no. In an ideal world, I’d go on to write how the Wellcome proved me wrong with their amazing exhibition, and really changed the way I think about graphic design, but we don’t live in that world, and I am not that blogger.

Photography is never allowed in the Wellcome’s main gallery space, which is particularly galling when the whole focus of the exhibition is graphics, but you can view a few of the images here. The Wellcome gets so crowded that I always try to come mid-day on a weekday (also so I have time to grab lunch from Roti King on the other side of Euston station – I’d never tried roti canai until I started eating there, but now I crave it pretty much all the time), but even that isn’t enough to avoid my fellow Londoners, because the museum is always hopping. I was dismayed to see there was an actual queue to look at the first set of cases, so I naturally bypassed it and headed straight for a display case in the middle of the room that almost no one was looking at. This turned out to contain graphics to do with anatomy, including a couple iPad models of the human body, and a small section on birth control with a few comic strips used by Planned Parenthood back in the infancy of the Pill. To be honest, I don’t think it made any difference what order I walked around in, because each display had a self-contained theme, and there wasn’t really any narrative tying the exhibition together; it was just a series of examples of different types of graphic design.

The line at the start of the exhibit eventually cleared, so I had a chance to meander over and check it out. This was the smoking themed section, and included both campaigns to encourage smoking (the designs of Silk Cut and Lucky Strike cigarette packets), and those against it, including a very bizarre Japanese poster on smoking etiquette that said something about how being scolded to pick a cigarette butt up was like being a child scolded for dropping candy wrappers (which to me sounds a little pro-smoker, but it was in the anti-smoking section, so maybe it lost something in translation).

The exhibition also dealt briefly with the design of fonts used in train stations and workplaces, which really had nothing to do with medicine at all, but I suppose the primary focus was indeed medical, because most of the other displays tied into medicine in some way; most obviously in the section on the design of prescription drugs, which has apparently been heavily influenced by an Israeli designer who came up with the idea of putting a big colourful shape on the front of prescription drug packets so pharmacists would be able to see with ease exactly what they were handing out, and thus avoid making dangerous mistakes. There was also a Swiss pharmaceutical company called JR Geigy AG that was renowned for its “ground-breaking” designs, though I do not remember exactly what they were.

There were displays on hospitals, mental health, and children’s medicine, but my favourite display was undoubtedly the one on epidemic disease. This contained some of the few properly historical objects in the museum, including posters warning about the spread of plague in 17th century Italy, and Victorian ones about cholera. There were some Dutch (I think? Damn this no picture rule!) designers that moved to Africa in the 1950s or ’60s and designed colourful posters explaining how leprosy is spread, and their work was here as well. Probably most visually striking, however, was the work done on the AIDS campaign in the 1980s-90s including a tombstone emblazoned with the word AIDS in giant red letters. There were also posters that went up in places like hospital waiting rooms and tattoo shops explaining how AIDS was spread, and also tying in with AIDS (sort of) was the display of condom packets (I was amused by the brand called OOOPH!) which came in an impressive and rather hilarious array of designs.

I feel like this exhibition was a lot smaller than most of the Wellcome’s major exhibitions, because it was limited to one large room, rather than a whole series of galleries like normal. I suppose it worked well with the theme, because it was bold visually and there wasn’t an overarching story to tell for which being led around a progression of galleries would make sense, but it nonetheless didn’t make for a particularly impressive exhibition. I left feeling just as uninspired by graphic design as I was when I went in – I suppose it might save my life, to answer the question in the title of the exhibition, but that doesn’t make it intrinsically interesting. I’m sticking with my initial description of dud for this one. 2.5/5 – it might be OK if you have a strong interest in graphic design, but if you were expecting something with a lot of informative text about the history of medicine and how graphic design tied into medical advances, like I was, you’re going to leave disappointed.

I also have to report that the Wellcome updated its Spirit Booth, which I was really excited to have my picture taken in last winter, and it was not an update for the better. Not only do you no longer get a physical copy of your photo (it’s all online), you have to answer a series of questions (in your mind) first, which would be fine, except for the voice in the booth pauses for about a full minute between each question, and you’re left sitting there in the dark wondering whether the booth is malfunctioning (for real, it doesn’t take a minute to read five words of text). They asked for feedback on the Spirit Booth, so here it is: put it back to the way it was before, or at least speed up the voice!

 

 

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.

London: “Bedlam: The Asylum and Beyond” @ the Wellcome Collection

wellcome2Since blogging about Forensics early in 2015, I hadn’t returned to the Wellcome Collection for a proper look around (confession: I have used their toilets when I’m in the area, because it’s better than paying 20 or 30p for the gross ones at Euston Station), having skipped the last couple of special exhibits mainly because it seemed like they were always super crowded (and one of them involved walking through a room where you apparently couldn’t really see anything. Bumping into strangers is not my cup of tea), so I thought I might as well catch the latest one, even though their no photography policy doesn’t make for very visually appealing posts.

“Bedlam: The Asylum and Beyond,” runs until 15th January 2017, and is free, like everything in the Wellcome. It was done in partnership with the Bethlem Museum of the Mind; some of you may have read my guest post on These Bones of Mine about the Bethlem Museum, and recall that I wasn’t too impressed with it. Unfortunately, it was a similar story with the Bedlam exhibit at the Wellcome; if it had been at another museum, I would have thought it was perfectly fine, but based on the previous high standards of the Wellcome, it seemed a little lacking.

The exhibit was meant to be divided into “scenes from Bedlam,” however, I didn’t really get the whole “scene” concept, as there didn’t seem to be a unique theme for each room because the exhibit had been mostly arranged chronologically rather than thematically. The first room appeared to be some kind of art installation relating to people’s experiences of psychiatric institutions, and then the exhibit began talking about the history of “Bedlam” itself (the nickname for Bethlem Hospital, which gradually seeped into the lexicon as a synonym for chaos), which was founded in the 13th century, and inhabited a number of different buildings around London before moving to Beckenham, where it is still located today. As you might expect, standards of care varied widely over the centuries, with the 18th century seen as a particularly appalling time: Georgians would pay admission to view the “lunatics” as a “fun” diversion, and many of the patients were kept chained at all times, like one poor man named James Norris, whose story was detailed here. James (who was described as an “insane American”) was kept chained by his neck to a post, with a metal cage over his upper arms so he couldn’t raise them, for over 14 years! The most appalling thing is that apparently no one could remember the initial reason he had been chained up, they just left him like that as it was the way it had always been done, despite the fact that he wasn’t violent, and was capable of rational conversation.  There were also a range of books and plays from this period that showed how madness was portrayed in popular culture, but overall, this section wasn’t terribly engaging.

The 19th century saw a move to slightly more humane treatment of patients, though some doctors still insisted that keeping the patients chained or straitjacketed was the best thing for them (by contrast, late 19th century Broadmoor (of all places!) seems to have been remarkably humane.  I’ve recently read The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale, which has detailed descriptions of life there (and is generally a pretty interesting book)). This section of the exhibit was located under a dome; I suppose it was meant to mirror the dome of the Victorian Bethlem, which is the current location of the Imperial War Museum (and very dome-y it is indeed), but the main benefit was that the two concentric circles the displays were arranged in left more room for people to look around than the Wellcome’s normal configuration. There was actually a lot of wonderful art created by patients in this section (sorry, “scene”), but probably the most interesting thing of all was a set of samplers made by a woman who believed she’d been confined unfairly. Her stitching was partly an artistic outlet, of course, but the samplers were also basically rambling letters to Queen Victoria pleading for her release, which I think she attempted to mail to the Queen.  The whole story was very sad. There was a movie room off to the right of this section, which was showing a strange German film called Caligari and the Sleepwalker, based on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, in which a man who believed he was an extraterrestrial entered an extremely odd institution run by a bearded and bespectacled doctor, who was constantly chomping on gum and communicated with the patient via chalkboard. I could only take about five minutes of this before I had to leave; it was just too damn bizarre.

There was a fairly unmemorable room about how the discovery of diazepam and similar drugs changed the treatment of mental illness (thankfully, there was only a brief mention of electroshock, because that freaks me out bad); the only thing of note in here was a series of drawings by Ugo Guarino that showed the negative side of psychiatric treatments in the 1970s, and helped lead to the closing of outdated hospitals in Italy, and the opening of modern mental health centres instead.

The final room contained current psychiatric patients’ ideas of what would make for an ideal hospital; their ideas sounded lovely, like having treehouses they could retreat to when they wanted to be alone, a kitten petting room, and really comfy sofas and beds so they could just spend the whole day reading and watching TV, but it did raise some interesting questions for me, in that this ideal hospital sounds much nicer than the real world, so I’m not sure how well it would equip people to deal with the demands of the outside world.  I think it’s a tricky balance to strike, between giving people a calm, safe, and caring environment, but also an environment that will help them integrate successfully back into mainstream society, which can be a scary place for all of us (certainly us introverts anyway).

I wasn’t overly impressed with the exhibit as a whole, as most of the artefacts just seemed to be old books open to title pages or not particularly interesting-looking passages.  There were a few tablets laying out, but to be honest, I’m far less likely to pick up some random tablet that has been slung on a table seemingly as an afterthought than I am to engage with a normal interactive touchscreen that’s more clearly part of a display, so they didn’t really enhance the interactivity for me. The best part was definitely the art produced by psychiatric patients, which was poignant and insightful, but Bethlem Museum of the Mind had way more of that sort of thing, and I still didn’t think that museum was terribly good, so the same goes for the Wellcome. A rare dud. 3/5.

wellcome1“Making Nature: How we see Animals” is another temporary exhibit at the Wellcome that happened to open on the day of my visit. This is located in the smaller exhibition space on the first floor, so it was only two rooms. However, it did contain some interesting stuff, most notably information on the building of the Natural History Museum (designed by Richard Owen, the pioneering, yet controversial 19th century paleontologist and zoologist), where I learned that until the 1920s, the design included a statue of Adam that was meant to show man’s dominion over the animal kingdom (not surprising because Richard Owen seemed to be quite religious); as well as information about the creation of the hilarious Crystal Palace dinosaurs (again, designed by Richard Owen. In many cases, the dinosaurs look a bit off because Owen was simply going off the best theories available at the time, which have since been proven wrong (although apparently even he thought the Iguanodon looked a bit ridiculous), but that’s part of what makes them such a delight. Crystal Palace is a bitch to get to, but perhaps I should go back one of these days so I can blog about it!). Because the exhibit was largely about how nature is portrayed in museums, there was a bit of taxidermy: a delightful tableau from 1876 showing fox cubs at play, and even better, one of the elusive pieces from Walter Potter’s museum, with anthropomorphic squirrels playing cards. I’m still angry at myself for missing the Potter Museum auction (even though I doubt I could have afforded anything anyway), so I’m always delighted to see his pieces pop up somewhere.

Also on the first floor, hiding in the corner next to the nifty spiral staircase, was a “Spirit Booth” meant to capture your “psychic transparency,” whatever the hell that is. Basically, it was a free photo booth that would insert a sort-of ghost in your photo, so I was all for it. Mine ended up with a skeleton “spirit” which is so me; the only bad part is that my photograph will now apparently appear online (update: just found it, so you can see it for yourself), and let me tell you, there was some unfortunate lighting in that booth. Oh well, I guess the skeleton makes up for it…? But yeah, if you go to the Wellcome in the near future (“Making Nature” runs until May), definitely go up to the first floor to check out the exhibit and get your photo taken, since to be honest, I enjoyed that part of the museum more than “Bedlam.”

 

Bristol: Glenside Hospital Museum

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It’s appropriate that this post falls near my third blogging anniversary (which was last Sunday, by the way!), because this is Bristol: Take 2, wherein I finally visit the Glenside Museum that I mentioned three long years ago.  In that post, I said it was open on Wednesdays and Fridays, but either I had it wrong, or they’ve changed their opening hours, because it is actually open from 10-12:30 on Wednesdays and Saturdays.  The museum is part of the campus of the University of the West of England (catchy name), and is housed in what was the hospital’s chapel, a rather imposing grey Victorian building.

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Though there is a parking lot right next to the museum, the museum says on their website that they don’t offer parking, so I’m assuming it was only for students and faculty of the university, or else museum volunteers.  However, we easily found parking on the street right around the corner from the museum (we visited on the Wednesday though, it may well be more crowded on Saturdays), so it wasn’t a major issue or anything.  Upon entering the museum, the first thing that hit me was the whiff of authentic smells.  I somehow doubt they were intentionally piped in, I think these were AUTHENTIC authentic smells, if you get my drift.  The second thing I noticed was the mannequin guarding the door, which initially freaked me out as I thought it was a real person (not because she looked particularly realistic, just because when you briefly glance at a person-shaped object, you assume it’s a person.  I’m not yet as bad as my poor mother, who once said, “excuse me sir,” when she bumped into a department store mannequin. My brother and I will never let her live it down).  Terrible awesome mannequins would be a hallmark of this museum.

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The museum is run on a donation only basis, and as there was no one at the front desk, it was very much a no-pressure arrangement.  While I appreciated that aspect of it, I did find it odd that none of the staff/volunteers acknowledged our presence at any point, despite there being a considerable number of them running around the building, and apparently making very smelly food for lunch (separate from the authentic smells, this was some kind of revolting meat-stink).  I don’t want someone following me around the whole time, or watching my every move, but it might have been nice if someone had at least greeted us and maybe gave a brief overview of the museum or something. The only encounter I did have with the people working there is when one of them pushed past us to show someone else something in one of the cases (from what I overheard, it sounded like the guy might have been staging a play version of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and wanted some ECT related props to use in it), which was just a bit rude, as they were talking loudly and pretended we weren’t there.  That was really the only off-putting aspect of Glenside though.

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Because, the museum was far bigger than I had been anticipating, and packed with lots of cool old medical stuff.  Glenside was originally called the Bristol Lunatic Asylum when it opened in 1861, and it remained a psychiatric hospital (though the name eventually evolved into the less-offensive Glenside) throughout its 130 year history, until it closed in 1994 (that’s minus the three years it served as a war hospital during WWI).  The first gallery of the museum was a bit too text-heavy when explaining the history of the hospital, but that gave way to a corridor with lots of smaller rooms full of psychiatric stuff of varying degrees of creepiness.  For example, I really liked the set of cards depicting various types of mental illness; a lengthy explanation was provided, but I think the gist of it was that they were made so illiterate people in India had a pictorial representation of the symptoms, in case their family members displayed any of them.  And those vintage light-up brain diagrams were right up my alley (and they still worked!).

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But I was super creeped out by the lobotomy/electroshock therapy room (apparently in the UK, lobotomies are called leucotomies, which doesn’t make them sound any better).  I can’t even watch the aforementioned One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (I had to see it once for a psychology class, and never again), and I’ve mentioned before how reading The Bell Jar at a formative age imbued me with a complete and lasting terror of ECT.  I also know there’s books on the history of lobotomies out there, and despite my fascination with almost every other gruesome aspect of medical history, I just can’t bring myself to read them.  So yeah, though I still looked at the ice pick that was jammed into someone’s brain, and some mannequin dioramas depicting lobotomies, I tried not to think about them too much, and I was relieved to leave that room behind me.

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Not that Victorian straitjackets and padded cells were much cheerier, but at least it didn’t involve someone excising vital chunks of the brain.  And I was actually really interested in the display of drugs used historically to treat mental illness.  And the display of bedpans, because that was very much back on weirdo-Jessica territory.

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I should mention that aside from the first room, with its text overload, captions were otherwise fairly sparse in the museum, so it didn’t take a tonne of time to look around all the other rooms.  To be honest, it was still longer than I was imagining we would spend there; going by the website, I was somehow picturing the exhibits to be smaller and crappier than they actually were.

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In addition to the macabre bits, there were also aspects of this museum that were poignant, as you would expect from a Victorian mental institution.  There were photographs and biographies of some of the patients, as well as recollections of the hospital from some 20th century patients (one just remembered it smelling of urine, which maybe explains the authentic smells aspect).  I was also struck by the account of a hairdresser at the hospital who commented on how overjoyed some of the patients were to have their hair styled, simply because they weren’t used to anyone taking care of them, or making them feel like a person, including one woman who always requested a golden rinse for her white hair to make it blonde (I was kind of picturing Betty White in her Golden Girls era when I read that).

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I mentioned earlier how Glenside also took in injured soldiers during WWI, when it was known as Beaufort War Hospital.  They also had displays relating to the war years, including what I believe was a temporary display on postcards (with children’s activities) and what they meant to soldiers.  They had also done profiles of some of the soldiers who stayed in the hospital, which were quite interesting to me as they were very similar to the work I’ve been doing on the WWI project I volunteer with.

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The building was maybe a wee bit odd in that it still had all the accoutrements of a church up, but with displays all in front of them.  There was even a display right in front of the altar, of art made by various museum volunteers, and this stuff was surprisingly good.  I say surprisingly because if someone asked me to produce a piece of art, it would look like a non-artistically-inclined 5 year old made it (I was that 5 year old, and things haven’t improved much in adulthood. All my friends and family know better than to ask me to help with any craft projects, unless they don’t mind wonky scissor work).  But their work was alright, and I especially liked the tapestry showing the history of medicine in Bristol, with a square devoted to the first cholera outbreak.

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Aside from the rather cold (well, more non-existent) reception, I really enjoyed this museum.  I don’t know if it was necessarily worth the three year wait, but I am glad I eventually got around to seeing it, because those mannequins were just as menacing as I was hoping, and the museum ended up having a fair bit to offer beyond them.  Even if psychiatry freaks me out more than other branches of medicine, there were still some very cool objects here, although I will concede they could perhaps be better organised or displayed in a more appealing manner (for me, that dated look (and the mannequins!) is a large part of the appeal, but I know I’m in the minority).  Still, for a free museum (with dismayingly limited opening hours), it was A-OK.  Not quite up to the standard of Dr. Guislain’s, by which all psychiatric museums are measured (by me), but then few things are.  3.5/5.

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