medical museums

London: The Vagina Museum

I first became aware of the Vagina Museum a few years ago, when I noticed job listings for it on some museum careers websites. At the time, it merely existed online, with no physical location. However, as of October 2019, it has found a home in Camden Market, and since their first exhibition ends on 29th March 2020, I thought it was high time I paid them a visit. I normally avoid Camden Market like the plague – it’s the kind of place you love when you’re a teenager or in your early 20s (as I was when I first discovered it), but you outgrow it real fast, in my case when some sleazy stall owner tried to kiss my neck (ick), so I hadn’t been there in years, and finding the Vagina Museum was a bit of a struggle, though I ultimately located it behind the Italian Alley.


The museum takes up two shopfronts in the market, and felt similar to the Museum of Neoliberalism in size and pop-up style appearance, though the Vagina Museum is searching for a more permanent location where they can hopefully gain more display space, as the current exhibition space feels downright spartan. The museum is free to visit, and the exhibition I saw was called “Muff Busters: Vagina Myths and How to Fight Them,” which is basically exactly what it says on the tin – the presentation of various myths followed by the facts.


I think the Vagina Museum is a great idea in theory – there is a Penis Museum, so why not a vagina one? – but the execution of this exhibition was just not up to scratch. Perhaps in keeping with my observation that Camden appeals most to teenagers, that’s who this exhibition seemed to be aimed at, as these myths were certainly not anything that any adult women of my acquaintance still believe, such as “you can’t get pregnant in a hot tub,” or “you can’t get pregnant if you douche with Coke,” (seriously, who does that last one, and why would you think it’s a good idea?!). In fact, based on my experience, women talk about their vaginas with each other way more than men talk about their penises with each other in a serious way (they might joke about size, but they would be embarrassed to talk about actual medical issues, whereas for most women that’s par for the course), so maybe this exhibition was actually aimed at teenage boys.

But if my theory is correct, the Vagina Museum needs to do a lot more to make their exhibitions visitor friendly, because this was just not, especially for the teenagers who might be attracted in by the name. As you can probably see from the pictures, 95% of the exhibition consisted of really big and wordy text panels, with only a handful of objects, mainly the Instagram friendly bloody tampon and moon cups you’ll see later in the post. Even I got bored with reading them, and I love reading. I know dispelling medical myths is a weighty and worthy topic, but the museum clearly has a sense of humour about itself (they host “pube quiz” evenings and their members are called the “Cliterati”) so it would have been nice if more of this shone through in the exhibition.


There was a small display showing the work of the “featured artist of the month” in the shop, and I think the Vagina Museum could start with featuring more vagina themed art, as literally the only works were the three pieces you can see in the above photo. Since half the museum is actually a museum shop, I think there was certainly room to display more pieces if they changed the arrangement a bit. That said, they do have some pretty neat things in the shop, and I wish the museum was as thoughtfully curated as their merchandise.

This post, accidentally but conveniently, will fall shortly before International Women’s Day (for which I am giving a talk on women of the collection at work – wish me luck!), and I do think we should all be more free to talk about vaginas, as half of the population have them. I have personally had way more than my fair share of gynaecological troubles, and I genuinely can’t believe how ignorant the average GP is about conditions that affect a sizeable percentage of women, let alone how ignorant the general public must be, so I think anything that demystifies the vagina is a worthy cause (I’m angry about the way I’ve been treated over the years, and I think all women deserve better). Because of this, and because they’re a new museum, I’ll cut them some slack and hope they improve with time (and also move away from Camden Market, because that place is seriously the worst). I’ll give them 2.5/5 for now, but I think they have potential – here’s hoping they can live up to it.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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London: Anaesthesia Heritage Centre


This is a shortish post, so let’s just consider this part of a medical twosome, to go with the Army Medical Museum from last week.  If nothing else, it’s really emphasised to me that British medical words are hard to spell.  There’s always an extra “a” or “o” or something in there to trip you up.  Maybe I should just give up on the Anglicised spellings, and revert to pure American, to match my uncompromisingly American accent and vocabulary (sorry, but trousers will always be pants to me!).  Anyway, the Anaesthesia (extra “a”) Heritage Centre was one of the few non-appointment only museums on this London medical museum website I hadn’t made it to, so I finally got around to venturing up there the other day (to be honest, all those Harley Street-esque premises intimidate me, so I waited until my boyfriend could come with me (it’s only open on weekdays) so I wouldn’t have to brave it alone).


The website says you should contact them before your visit, but you really don’t have to.  There’s just a normal receptionist there who will have someone from the museum take you downstairs, so there’s no need to make an appointment or anything, no matter what they tell you.  The museum is free, which is good because it’s super teeny (that panorama above shows pretty much the whole of it, and the perspective probably makes it look bigger than it is), as I have learned is generally the case for museums based in some kind of medical association (like the BDA Dental Museum).  I will say that they do manage to cram an awful lot of text in there, so at least it takes a bit longer than the Dental Museum to look around if you read everything.


I already knew a fair bit about the history of anaesthesia (that damn “a”) just on account of being a medical history nerd, and we also saw some of the first general anaesthestic related instruments at the Warren Anatomical Museum in Boston, Boston being a kind of anaesthesia hub in the 19th century, so there wasn’t a whole lot that was new or particularly impressive in this museum, save for some instruments belonging to Dr. John Snow of cholera fame, and a machine that was used when George VI was operated on for lung cancer, but the collection of disturbingly long spinal needles was certainly suitably terrifying (I think I’m more scared of having a needle jammed in my spine than most other medical procedures.  I’m not generally bothered by needles, hence the tattoos and multiple ear piercings, but seriously, do not put one of those things near my spine.  Though I guess if I ever had to go through childbirth, I might change my mind right quick).


The main draw of the museum was meant to be this WWI exhibit, the second in a series of four stretching from 2014-2018 (maybe they change them in August, or November?), on “The Riddle of Shock,” but man, this shit was lame.  The “exhibit” turned out to be two posters in a corner of the museum.  I mean, the information therein was interesting, basically on how they discovered shock was common because the men were normally dehydrated and chilled when they went into battle anyway, and getting wounded on top of that was more than the body could take, so they were able to develop ways to treat it based on warming and rehydrating the body (no coffee enemas for me though, thanks).  But I really would not call two posters an exhibit.  A display, maybe?  If they’d called it a display, I don’t think I’d have been as disappointed.


There’s also a small library there, which you apparently DO need an appointment to use, and I discovered another display case inside the empty restaurant (though it was even less impressive than the stuff in the museum).  And their toilets are quite nice, which is maybe worth remarking on due to the scarcity of public loos in this part of London (who hasn’t popped into the M&S on Oxford Street just to use their toilets?!), though as you have to sign in and everything, it probably wouldn’t be advisable to stop in just for that.  But the fact that I’ve just wasted that much space talking about their toilets (with fancy soaps!) shows how little there is in the museum worth discussing.  Good if you need a primer on the history of anaesthesia, not really worth the trip for much else.  2/5.


Cleveland, OH: The Dittrick Museum of Medical History

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I can’t believe I waited this long to visit the Dittrick Museum (or this long to post about it!  I went here in September, and I’m already back in NE Ohio again for the holidays!).  I mean, I lived in Cleveland for the first 23 years of my life, I love medical history, I spent a fair amount of time hanging around the other museums in University Circle, and I almost went to school at Case Western Reserve University (twice!  I was accepted both as an undergrad, and into their History of STEM Ph.D programme, but stupidly turned down both), so there is absolutely no reason I shouldn’t have been there before.  But I guess all that doesn’t matter, now that I’ve finally remedied the situation.

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The Dittrick Museum is located inside the Allen Memorial Medical Library on Case’s campus; I recommend parking in the University Hospital visitor’s garage a short distance away, because they offer free parking for the first two hours (more than enough time to see the museum) and the metered spots on Euclid Road are usually all full.  Once you find your way inside the building, it’s a little confusing, because the main staircase takes you up to the library on the second floor, with no apparent way to get up to the third floor.  So you need to take the shaky, slightly unsafe looking lift on the far left side of the ground floor up to the 3rd floor, as directed in the lift.  (We did find a staircase once we got up there that led to the toilets, but I’m not sure how you accessed it from the ground floor.  I think it went straight down to the basement.)  The museum is free, and though university professors have their offices in the hallways all around the museum, no one is actually working at it, so you can look around without anyone breathing down your neck, which is nice.

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The museum is actually larger than I expected, with a number of different galleries/areas.  The centrepiece of the collection is undoubtedly the museum of contraception, of which more later, but they also have a number of exhibits about local and general medical history.  There was also a temporary exhibition, which was about childbirth (to tie in with the whole contraception/women’s health thing), which includes some fine (albeit a bit full-on) anatomical models.  I have to say, some of the childbirth implements there, especially the historical dilators (although the display informed me that they still use them in modern medicine; they’re just made from softer materials) made me very glad that I live in an age where the option not to have children exists.

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Case Western has a very well-renowned medical school, and many fairly prominent doctors have trained in the Cleveland area.  One of the most famous was George Washington Crile, a surgeon who performed the first operation using a direct blood transfusion, and was one of the founders of the Cleveland Clinic. (Cleveland used to also be home to Crile Military Hospital, as I found out from one of my grandpa’s letters.  However, Crile didn’t actually work there as it opened a year after he died, it was just named after him.)  There’s a wax model of his hand in here, perhaps to show the fine touch that made him a gifted surgeon.  A more notorious doctor who trained in Cleveland was the creepy Dr. Crippen, of alleged wife-murdering fame.  Even though his eyes scare the crap out of me, I still think that’s pretty cool.

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The museum discussed a variety of medical topics like anaesthesia, dentistry, and polio (complete with an infant sized iron lung), but with a special Northeast Ohio focus that as a former Clevelander, I found most interesting.

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The Museum of Contraception was located in the back section of the main room, and this too was pretty damned interesting.  Ohio is generally nowadays more known for trying to restrict women’s reproductive rights, so it was nice to come to this bastion of common sense and freedom of choice.  The collection was started by Percy Skuy, former president of Ortho Pharmeceutical (appropriately enough, since they make Ortho-Tri-Cyclen and other birth control pills), and has received so many donations that it’s doubled in size since its arrival in the museum, to include over 1100 objects.

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It contains information on birth control throughout history (some of the early attempts being not only ineffective, but distinctly unpleasant, shades of the childbirth section again), the attempts of campaigners to educate women on effective methods of contraception, and how they faced extreme opposition, especially from the horrible shit-stain of a man, Anthony Comstock, who was responsible for the ridiculous Comstock Law that allowed distributors of anything deemed “lewd” (birth control among them) to be successfully prosecuted.  Seriously, he was the worst, and someone eventually clubbed him over the head, but it wasn’t enough to kill him (more’s the pity).

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This gallery also includes some delightful contraception related art, like a display of IUDs (or maybe that was just a normal display, but it looked cool), a pearl ship given to Margaret Sanger by the Japanese people in thanks for her efforts to make birth control available to all, and an American flag containing stars made out of birth control pills, which is also available as a free postcard from a table in the middle of the museum.

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There’s a little balcony area up some stairs at the side of the museum, containing a collection of medical instruments.  While not quite as interesting as the contraception stuff, I did enjoy looking at the range of early stethoscopes, tongue depressors, and other instruments.

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But that wasn’t all!  In addition to a small room at the back currently (well, at the time of my visit) housing a collection of anatomical drawings, there were also cases lining the walls on the outside of the museum, and these contained some of the most fascinating and hilarious artefacts of the whole collection.  Part of the display was about how you would have been treated if you’d been sick in various eras in history, and obviously the historical treatments weren’t pleasant (that enema plate though! If I owned it, and if I was the type to host dinner parties, I would so serve people something chocolately off of it, just to be gross.  Maybe like a warm chocolate fondant, or a brownie pudding.  Mmmmm).

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But there was also a case on forensics, and displays on the Cleveland smallpox epidemic of 1902, which was not something I knew much about, and was definitely keen to read up on, what with my love of infectious disease and all.  Cleveland also had a diphtheria problem, and there was information on that too.  Undoubtedly one of my favourite objects, just for nostalgia’s sake, was Juno the Transparent Woman, pictured at the start of the post.  Apparently she was built in Germany in the 1940s, and has resided in Cleveland since 1950, but I remember her still being a big deal when I was a kid in the ’80s and early ’90s (at least to me).  She used to live at the Cleveland Health Museum, which was my favourite museum in my youth, and perhaps where I got my love of medical history (they had fetuses in jars, a giant tooth you could climb through, and put on a special Where’s Waldo event one year that was really fun), where she stood in a darkened room, and told visitors all about her internal organs, lighting up each one as she talked about it.  The Health Museum eventually got pretty lame, due to lack of attendance I guess, and closed in 2006, so Juno was moved here, and I was glad to see her.

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There’s also a small display of venereal disease posters on the ground floor, which I only noticed because a torrential downpour had started when we were in the museum, and we were waiting for it to die down.  Overall, the museum was much better than I had anticipated, and made me kind of angry at myself for not doing that Ph.D, as I likely would have had the opportunity to do some work on it (but then I’d still be living in Clevo, so perhaps it’s for the best).  There were a surprising number of cool artefacts, a tonne of signage, and the museum of contraception was very neat indeed.  Cleveland really doesn’t have that many free museums, other than the Art Museum, so I’m extremely glad this exists, and wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone visiting Cleveland with any interest in medicine.  I’m just ashamed it took me so long to follow my own advice.  4/5.  And if you’re in the area, you’re also very near to Little Italy (Get the gnocchi al burro at Trattoria), and Lake View Cemetery, and are only a hop, skip, and a jump (though it admittedly involves a drive down the long and horrible Mayfield Road) from East Coast Custard (best frozen custard in NE Ohio, possibly the world).

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Turin: Museum of Human Anatomy (Museo di Anatomia Umana)

I am sad for your sake that this will have to be a picture-less post (the no photo rule was especially strictly enforced in the museum); there were so many excellent anatomical specimens in this museum, it seems a shame not to show you any.  If you read my last post, you will know that the Anatomy Museum is one of three museums within the University of Turin that you can visit with a 10 euro pass (or 5 euro for one, though if you like anatomy, you’ll probably want to visit the Cesare Lombroso Museum too.  Just sayin’).  The Anatomy Museum is located in the same general complex as the Lombroso and Fruit Museums, just on the opposite side of it, so you’ll have to exit and walk around the block, but again, the museum itself is clearly signposted, so you’ll know it when you’re there.

Like the Lombroso Museum, most of the written content of the museum was conveyed through big sturdy wooden boards waiting in holders next to each display case.  I was initially dismayed to see that the signs only appeared to be in Italian; luckily, I flipped one over and realised that English was on the other side.  Huzzah!  Let me tell you, these were pretty excellent signs/captions/illustrated descriptions/factsheets (I’m not sure what they’re actually called, but you know what I mean). There were cute little drawings of the museum’s choice specimens on each one (insofar as pickled body parts can be cute), with diagrams directing you to the highlights, and detailed descriptions of all the wax anatomical models.  There was also information about the workings of the human body, so it was kind of like a crash anatomy lesson (Canvas actually offers a free online course called Mini Medical School; I took it last spring for something to do.  Not to brag, but I totally aced the infectious disease unit.  Well, actually all of it, because you can retake the tests, but I got 100% on infectious diseases on the first try).

The main gallery is quite long, with cases alongside both walls, arranged (for the most part) in anatomical order.  Each section includes a beautiful old wax model or interesting skeleton (or both), like the skeletons of a giant and dwarf.  There are also paintings of famous anatomists adorning the walls; my favourite was of course Vesalius (since Ruysch or Paré weren’t represented.  Coincidentally, I was reading The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons at the time, which I definitely recommend if you’re into anatomy or the workings of the brain.  There’s a whole chapter on Vesalius and Paré.  Actually, I like all of Sam Kean’s books, as I am also “keen” (get it?) on the history of science).  I got to look at an early edition of De humani corporis fabrica when I was doing my MA, and the memory of those gorgeous drawings has stayed with me.  Highlights of this section, other than the wax models, include a couple of South American mummies, an eighteenth century plaster cast of a pregnant woman, with belly opened; and a large amount of dry anatomical preparations (as opposed to wet ones aka “stuff in jars”) which really allow you to admire the muscular and circulatory systems.

The back room is all about the head, and contains an impressive amount of preserved brains just casually hanging out on shelves (in that neurology book I just mentioned, Kean kept compared sliced brains to foccaccia, which I thought particularly apt here since we were in Italy.  I did eat a lot of focaccia on the trip, so clearly I wasn’t grossed out by this).  There was a huge wood and ivory model of the brain, a few skulls (like the Lombroso Museum), and, also like the Lombroso Museum, the skeleton of its 19th century curator, Carlo Giacomini.  He too decided he wanted to become a part of the museum upon his death, so his skeleton is here, along with his brain, preserved using his own technique.  (Can I just say that I think this is an excellent idea?  One of my goals in life is to amass enough interesting crap whilst I’m alive to have my own Wunderkammern, and if that happens, I wouldn’t mind being stuck in there myself after I die.  Though maybe Jeremy Bentham style, where everything gets preserved, because I think that would creep people out more.)

The brain collection is largely from the 19th century, thanks to the work of Giacomini, there was of course also a phrenology case, including the plaster casts of heads of some famous/notorious individuals.  Aside from Napoleon, most of them were probably famous only in Italy, but I was intrigued by the story of the “Hyena of San Giorgio,” whose (plaster) head is on display here.  If you’ve read my Danish Police Museum post, you’ll know that a mysterious photo of a murder scene featuring a bloodied sausage grinder, with no English translation, has triggered my fascination with finding “sausage murderers.”  Well, it sounds like this Hyena fellow was probably one of those, as he brutally raped and killed a number of girls, and allegedly turned some of them into sausages.  I mean, awful stuff, obviously, but I do feel somewhat vindicated every time I discover proof that sausage murderers are a thing (if I’m getting technical, this may have started with one of those stories in the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books (those of the terrifying illustrations that traumatised every child who grew up in the 1990s) in which an evil butcher was making children into sausages).

Anyway, moving on from that grisly interlude, because the Anatomical Museum really isn’t all that grisly itself.  Sure, there’s a lot of body parts, but they’re more about displaying the intricacies of the human body than deformities or abnormalities (to be sure, there are some of those, but not to the extent I’ve seen at other medical museums).  And the galleries that the museum is housed in are truly beautiful, very classically museumy, so even if medical stuff isn’t normally your bag, you may be able to appreciate this place for its historic value.  I really loved it; even the signboards were witty and charming, and the wax anatomical models were stunning.  If you’re in Turin on any day but a Sunday (the museums are closed then), I highly recommend taking an hour or two out of your day to check both the Anatomy and Lombroso Museums out…if you love medical museums as much as I do, you definitely won’t be disappointed.  4/5.


Turin, Italy: Cesare Lombroso Museum of Criminal Anthropology (and the Fruit Museum)

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I recently turned thirty, and rather than sit at home eating a cake of sadness and mourning the loss of my youth (not sure what a cake of sadness would even involve.  Probably raisins, because I hate them), I thought it would be better to go on a short trip somewhere, especially as my birthday tends to fall right around the August Bank Holiday weekend.  Italy is not normally high on my list when it comes to museums (aside from the few I visited in Rome last year), since I’m not a big fan of religious art or architecture, but I’m always in the mood to eat some gelato and focaccia, so my stomach overpowered my mind this time.  In the end, we managed to plan a driving holiday that would take us to some less-than-culturally-exciting destinations on the Ligurian Coast, because focaccia, but would also give us a couple days in Turin, which fortunately did have quite a few museums I was interested in seeing.  On the top of my list was the Cesare Lombroso Museum of Criminal Anthropology, located on the University of Turin campus.

I think it’s been well-established that I love both crime and medical museums, so combining the two was sure to be a winner.  Especially when the collection was primarily from the 19th century, and Cesare Lombroso himself was still residing in the museum (in a way).  Finding the museum wasn’t too tricky, since it was well sign-posted, for all that we had to go up a couple floors inside an old university building, and unusually for Italy, it was not only open on time, it was even open a bit early (it opens at 10, but we got there about five minutes before and there was already someone at the admissions desk).  There are currently three museums that are part of the university (they also have a normal anthropology museum that looks pretty cool, but it’s closed for renovation): criminal anthropology, an anatomy museum (which I was also keen to visit), and a fruit museum, which came as a surprise to me, as I’d only noticed the first two on their website.  Admission is 5 euros for one museum, or 10 euros for all three, which we went with as I knew I would definitely want to see the museum of anatomy as well.

The museum did not allow photography (most likely because of the human remains and all), but I was relieved to see that there were large boards throughout the museum providing English translations of each gallery description, as well as translations of most of the item captions.  Obviously, this greatly enhanced the experience.

On walking in, we were greeted with a mock-up of a court room, and a dialogue between a young man and an old man debating all the changes that took place during the Victorian era (or Italian equivalent, which I guess would include Garibaldi), followed by a room showcasing some of Lombroso’s equipment, and a description of his work.  Basically, Lombroso was the Chair of Forensic Medicine at the University of Turin from the 1870s onward, and he had a special fascination with criminals and mental illness that led to him combining forensics, anthropology, medicine, and a hefty dose of pseudoscience into a discipline known as criminal anthropology.  It relied heavily on phrenology and physiognomy, so has essentially been proven to be complete nonsense, but nonetheless, Lombroso was seen as producing some revolutionary work in his time, and he also had an influence on introducing more humane treatment of prisoners and asylum inmates.  And he left this amazing museum behind, so he clearly wasn’t all bad.

The main gallery, Lombroso’s original museum, was probably the most interesting part.  It’s here that his skeleton resides, along with an impressive collection of criminal skulls and wax death masks taken of prisoners (people who died in prison, mind, they weren’t specially killed for this or anything).  There is also some wooden furniture  featuring human figures with elongated heads made by an asylum inmate called Eugenio Lenzi; his stuff was really awesome, and I’d love to get my hands on a piece.

There were actually quite a few things created by prisoners and people suffering from mental illness, including a costume made from clothing fibres that weighed forty kilos, which a certain psychiatric patient insisted on wearing every day (and considering how damn hot it was when we were there, I have no idea how he didn’t just pass out or die of heat exhaustion).  I also loved the collection of water jugs made by prisoners, including one featuring a mustachioed man and cat motif.

Speaking of prisoners, another room contained little wooden models of cells from four different prisons, as well as a larger model of the notorious Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania (which is supposed to have an amazing haunted house in it for Halloween…part of me really wants to go, and part of me is kind of glad I don’t live anywhere near there so I don’t have to).  Eastern State specialised in the silent treatment, where prisoners even had their own private exercise yards built at the ends of their cells so they never came into contact with the other prisoners.  Little wonder many of them were driven insane.

The museum closed with a re-creation of Lombroso’s study (very cosy, with a couch and some plush chairs, I’d have it) and a hallway explaining some of his theories in more detail, and refuting them with modern science.  Like most people back then, he had some racist ideas based around physiognomy, though a bit unusually, because he was Jewish, believed that “Semitic peoples” were the highest race.  He also didn’t seem too keen on women, which is again not surprising given the time period he lived in, but didn’t do much as far as winning me over.  However, I can’t knock the museum, which is delightful, especially all the wax masks and inmate-made artefacts, and I’d definitely recommend checking it out if you’re passing through Turin.  4/5.

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I also mentioned that there was a fruit museum.  I love fruit, but I probably wouldn’t have bothered going in if we hadn’t got the museum pass that meant it was essentially free.  Also, it was right across the hall from the Lombroso Museum, so I really had no excuse not to venture inside.  Disappointingly, unlike the other museums, nothing here was translated into English, but that didn’t stop me from appreciating the many, many beautiful models of fruit that adorned cabinets around the museum.  Seriously, there were hundreds of different apples alone.  I never knew there were so many varieties!  There were also tonnes of pears, and assorted cherries, plums, and melons…even a few root vegetables. (I just found out, via the brochure, that it is predominantly a pomological museum, which explains why it was mostly apples and pears.  Which I am admittedly not big on unless they are baked into a crumble or covered in caramel or smashed into cider (or perry), but I ate a lot of plums when I was in Italy (since I missed cherry season), and they were fantastic).

The other item of note was a small display about caterpillars.  Longtime readers will know that I am absolutely terrified of butterflies, but I was fairly indifferent towards caterpillars until I saw these paintings.  A caterpillar when enlarged is a hideous creature, and especially when cut in half in giant 3D model form.  Ick.

I wasn’t terribly impressed with the fruit museum, but if you’ve gone for the multi-pass, it’s worth popping in just to marvel at those plastic fruits.  It might well be better if you can read Italian, because it seemed like there was quite a lot in there about the science of agriculture, and the history of fruit growing in Italy.  And Francesco Garnier Valletti, who started the museum.  So I’ll only give it a 1.5/5, but you might be able to bump it up a couple of points if you can understand Italian.  By the way, I didn’t forget about the anatomical museum…more on that in the next post!

Bangkok, Thailand: Siriraj Medical Museum, Escape Hunt, and Madame Tussaud’s

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I do love a good compilation post, don’t you?  This one is to wrap up my time in Bangkok by covering all the other random crap I did.  First of all, the Siriraj Medical Museum, which I read about on another travel blog (sorry, I can’t remember which one it was, if it was yours let me know!) a few months ago, and mentally noted, even though I had no plans to visit Thailand at the time. So when I did end up there, it was the one thing I insisted on seeing.  Siriraj Hospital was on the opposite side of Bangkok from where we were staying (Sukhumvit 26), and was one riverboat stop past the Grand Palace, on the other riverbank.  Once you get inside the hospital complex, it’s fairly tricky to find the correct building, so take advantage of the maps they have posted around the place.  I’m not sure where to advise you to go first, as the Congdon Anatomical Museum and Prehistory Museum (which are in the same building) both shut at 12 for an hour or so (at least on the day we visited), but you have to buy tickets in the other building, with the Parasitology and Criminology Museums, so either get there early (or late, I guess), or buy a ticket and then head over to the other building.  They’re only a couple of streets apart so it’s not that hard getting from one to the other, or at least it wouldn’t be if it wasn’t a million degrees outside and if the building numbers went in order.  Admission is 300 baht for all museums (about 6 quid), or 200 for the museums in the main building only. (Warning: I’m going to get into reasonably graphic descriptions of corpses and body parts, so if that kind of stuff nauseates you, maybe skip down to the text below the ice cream pictures) The museums include the four I’ve already mentioned, plus one that was all in Thai that appeared to be about health, and a special exhibit on the tsunami.  I was imagining it would take hours to see them, but none of them are that big, so we were done in an hour and half.  They do have a strict no-photos policy, so I can’t show you the awesome things there, but I will of course describe them.  The highlights of the collection are the pickled serial killers in big glass cases; I think they have six of them.  One of them was actually a baby-killing cannibal, so you really don’t have to feel guilty about gawping at his flayed corpse.  These are definitely not for the faint-hearted, as all kinds of fat was poking through the corpses, and they had trays underneath to catch the moisture, which were filled with horrible red and yellow fluid and things that looked like worms.  Naturally, I loved it, but if you have a weak stomach, I’d avoid this part.  They also had a most splendid collection of jarred fetuses, including the usual cast of conditions; hydrocephaly, anencephaly, harlequin ichthyosis, and conjoined twins, but quite a few examples of each, more than the average medical museum.  There were also some diseased organs in this section and very graphic photos showing suicide victims.  Aside from the tsunami exhibit, almost nothing was in English, but most of the stuff was fairly self-explanatory, at least if you frequent medical museums like I do.

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The Parasitology Museum fortunately did have English descriptions of each kind of parasite, which was useful in helping me gauge the sorts of things I might be picking up on the trip (just kidding, sort of).  After finishing up in the main building, we rushed over to see the Anatomical Museum before it closed.  It was very hot in that building, as there was no air conditioning, and I ended up hanging out in front of a fan, with all the skeletons (as seen above).  This part was more about bones and individual organs, though they also had quite a few fetuses here, and a male and female corpse-couple.  We tried to go downstairs to check out the Prehistory Museum, but it was closing for lunch, and I heard they were also closed earlier in the morning, so I’m not sure what the best time to visit them is.  Maybe early afternoon?  Honestly, Prehistory was the museum I cared least about, so I wasn’t that bothered.  Although it wasn’t as large and extensive as I’d been led to believe, the Siriraj Museum nonetheless had some impressive things in its collection, namely the corpses and fetuses, so I’d still recommend it if you’re fascinated by that sort of stuff as much as I am. Seeing the museum had worked up quite an appetite (yes, I am weird), so we went to this ice cream chain called Swensen’s that had a shop right by the riverboat dock (also right by the random street dinosaurs shown above).  They turned out to have awesome American-style sundaes (makes sense since it appears to be an American chain, albeit one I’ve never heard of), which I was most pleased by, since I can’t get proper sundaes in London for some reason, and I miss them like crazy.  I had some kind of oreo and brownie concoction in a waffle bowl, which was super delicious (the other picture is of a sundae I had at a different location of Swensen’s, also amazing).

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Whilst I was in Bangkok, I also went to this thing called Escape Hunt, which was basically a sort of murder mystery thing, only without cheesy actors!  You go to their headquarters in the basement of some tower, and they lock you and your fellow sleuths (you can book a room with up to 4 of your friends) in a room, and you have to solve a mystery to escape (it’s much nicer and less sketchy than it sounds, I promise).  One of the women who work there serves as your guide, and will pop in from time to time to offer hints, if you need them.  We had to figure out who murdered a businesswoman using the clues in the room, and I have to say, it was really really fun.  I especially liked that we had a private room, so you didn’t have to embarrass yourself in front of everyone (which is why I’ve never been to a murder mystery).  The whole experience was surprisingly great (albeit pricy), including being served tea after, and then being photographed in sexy Sherlock Holmes outfits (although Benedict’s Sherlock is sexy in any outfit), and I definitely recommend it if you’ve done all the sightseeing around Bangkok, and want something different and fun (and air-conditioned) to do (I just had a look at their website, and they’re meant to be opening one in London this summer, which will be awesome if I can find some friends by then!).


Badly cropped pic of me as a super sleuth

Finally, although it was just a Madame Tussaud’s, and therefore probably not that different from the one in London (though I don’t know since I’ve never been, due to it costing mega-money and only being for tourists), I thought I’d throw in some pictures of Bangkok’s wax museum (wow, waxworks and stuff in jars in one post.  Throw in some authentic smells and we’d have the trifecta of stuff Jessica loves!).  It was cheaper than the London one, but still hella expensive by Thailand standards, at around 16 quid.

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Ok, that last one is George Clooney. He looks pretty bad, so I thought I’d better caption it.  They did have lots of Asian stars who I’d never heard of here, which I guess is the main difference between this one and the London one (also there was no Chamber of Horrors, more’s the pity!).

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And the last one here is Madame Tussaud herself, not Marie Antoinette.  I have to say that I adored the malls in Bangkok (and the one in Phuket, which had an amazing food hall); they were really fancy, and had doughnut and ice cream shops inside, so I was in heaven.  I didn’t even do any shopping, I just liked wandering around in the air conditioning and eating.  And going to Madame Tussaud’s, which is inside the massive Siam Mall in Bangkok.  Maybe I should have spent more time exploring outside, but I wilt in the heat, and the malls were a welcome respite from that, so I don’t regret it!

100th Post(card) Giveaway! And St. Bart’s Pathology Museum

I’m sure you’re all dying to hear who won…I very scientifically assigned each of you a number based on the order in which you commented (excluding my own comments, of course), and put them into a random number generator…the winner is number 4, stinkjel!  Congrats, and I hope you enjoy your prize!

I’ve been blogging for just under a year, but I’m already up to my 100th post! I had to celebrate the occasion somehow, so I’m doing a giveaway.  As you may have guessed from the title, it will consist of a selection of postcards taken from my extensive collection, from places all over Europe and America, many of which I’ve blogged about.


The cards pictured above are what you’ll be getting, and they’re all blank, so you can hang them up on your walls, or send them to your friends to confuse them by making them think you’re off visiting the Cork Butter Museum, or a Danish beach!  In case the postcards aren’t exciting enough, I’m including a special secret bonus prize along with them (though it’s not actually anything that thrilling, so maybe don’t get too excited.)!

The contest is open to everyone, and I’m happy to ship the postcards anywhere in the world.  To enter, simply leave a comment listing one of your favourite museums and/or travel destinations, or alternatively, somewhere you’d like to see me blog about.  If you don’t have a wordpress blog, be sure you enter in a valid email address so I have some way of contacting you.  Contest is open until Thursday, 20th February.  I’ll pick the winner using a random number generator, and announce who they are on Friday the 21st.  (Sorry I don’t have something more exciting to give away, but my budget is extremely limited at the moment!)

And now, so there’s actually some useful content in this landmark post as well, I’d like to tell you about St. Barts Pathology Museum, in London.  The museum is inside St. Bart’s Hospital (Sherlock fans will know it well as it’s the building Sherlock splats from…or not, as the case may be.  I hope you’ve all seen the new series by now!), and is only open to the public during special events (alas, I’ve never seen Benedict there, despite lots of looking, though there’s really nothing (save for the wet and dirty ground, and possibly good taste) to stop you posing in the same spot where he landed outside).  I’ve been there twice, once for a taxidermy workshop last year, and again last week for a lecture on Jack the Ripper’s victims.  Though the workshops usually cost 50 quid and up, the lectures are only around £6, come with a free glass of wine, and are usually about interesting medical, history, or horror related topics, so they’re probably your best ticket inside.

Doors open half an hour before events (typically at 6:30 for the evening lectures) to give attendees a chance to explore the museum. Because the museum’s collections pretty much entirely consist of human remains, no photography is allowed, but I’ll try to give you a rough idea of what’s inside.  Only the ground level exhibits are currently accessible, though I believe they’re trying to make the stairs and things safe so the public can go up to the upper levels within the next few years.  The contents are similar to what you’d find in the Hunterian and the Gordon Museum…perhaps a bit closer to the Gordon, as it is used as a learning resource for medical students.  Therefore, it’s not always the most user friendly to the general public, and many of the specimens don’t have proper captions, or just offer a short explanation full of medical terminology that is probably not that useful to the layperson. However, the “highlights” of the collection generally are well labelled, and there’s a few big posters of drawings explaining specific unpleasant conditions.

I find that the back wall has the best stuff, and the collections sort of get less gory (and therefore, less interesting) as you progress up to the front of the museum, but that’s just me.  The back wall has some nice mounted skeletons, including several of babies suffering from hydrocephaly.  My favourite case has to be the one full of things pulled out from inside people (yes, usually from inside the anus), like an anti-aircraft shell used by a man who had prolapses and hemorrhoids to hold everything in place, until one day it got stuck; and a slate pencil, which I think was swallowed, notable largely because Laura’s always using them to write poems mocking Miss Wilder or curl her “lunatic fringe” in Little Town on the Prairie.

Other objects of note within the museum are the liver that was deformed by constant tight corset lacing, and the rather impressive collection of tumours caused by “sweep’s cancer.”  There are really lots of neat bones, organs, tumours, and other body parts to see, so try to come check it out for yourself if you can.  The link at the start will take you to their events page, but here it is again if you don’t feel like scrolling back up.  There’s some cool-sounding lectures coming up in the next couple weeks, and then I believe they’re not having any more until next autumn, so book soon if you want to visit.  I will say that I was slightly disappointed in the lecture I just attended, because the title was misleading (it was called something to the effect of “Mary Kelly, the Ripper’s final victim), as I thought it would be very specific to Mary Kelly, when really it was just a general overview of Jack the Ripper, but it was still entertaining, and delivered by the leading Ripperologist Donald Rumbelow (and fortunately, Rumbelow doesn’t seem to buy into the wilder theories, which is what sometimes puts me off “Ripperology”).  Nonetheless, the museum is always worth seeing, and I do still plan to attend future events.

Good luck to everyone entering the giveaway (and I hope someone does enter, or this is going to get really embarrassing)!

London: Royal College of Physicians Museum

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George Cruikshank’s “The Gin Shop”

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

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


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

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

Plate VI from Cruikshank's "The Bottle."  Image from

Plate VI from Cruikshank’s “The Bottle.” Image from

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

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

Paula Rego's "O Vinho-playtime"  Image from

Paula Rego’s “O Vinho-playtime” Image from

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

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