Death Stare

By Lisa Haushofer

Copyright The Hunterian Museum London

Copyright © The Hunterian Museum London

The beautiful and the eerie coexist uneasily in the preservation of dead objects. It is a paradox that immediately comes to mind on entering the Hunterian Museum of London. Rows upon rows of brightly lit and well-ordered jars form the aptly named “Crystal Gallery”, the heart of the museum, and the core of the anatomical collection of John Hunter. Two stories of shelves look down on the curious visitor, who cannot help but feel that she has become the focus of an inverted anatomical theater, in which the spectator has taken the place of the dissected object, and the audience’s seats are filled with a host of specimens.

Stepping closer to the glass cabinets, you can discern two different groups of specimen, representing the two different “classes” of Hunter’s collection. The first is dedicated to bodily processes, such as respiration and motion. The items in this collection are arranged by organ groups believed to pertain to one of these functions. This arrangement reflects the 18th century belief that the structure and the function of an organ were closely related, that one could somehow infer the purpose of an organ by analyzing its configuration and its place in the body. As a result, some specimens are grouped differently than they might be today. The spleen, for instance, the purpose of which long remained mysterious, can be found under the organs of “digestion.” The second part of the collection houses specimens relating to processes of “generation”: specimens found in this class were intended to illustrate how humans and animals reproduce and grow. Together, these anatomical preparations illustrated the workings of what Hunter would have called the “animal oeconomy”, the working of the body, or what we might call “physiology”. Dead objects, preserved to illuminate the secrets of life.

Copyright © The Hunterian Museum London

Copyright © The Hunterian Museum London

Hunter probably began collecting during his years as a military surgeon in France and Portugal during the 1760s.  He had been working as a dissector and anatomist in his brother William’s private anatomy school in London’s Covent Garden since 1748 before commencing his surgical training. Having gained a reputation as a skilled anatomist and surgeon, he set up his own private school, moving into a large townhouse on Leicester Square in 1783. Like the Hunterian museum, this townhouse reflected the double purpose of the specimen as objects of knowledge and teaching, as well as aesthetic items to behold. Hunter’s house contained an anatomical theater and several rooms for preparation and dissection, as well as a museum for the specimens which was open to the public.

Hunter’s activities exemplify a larger concern of the 18th century with collecting and classifying, describing and displaying. “Cabinets of curiosity,” collections of instructive and often strange or wondrous objects, had been in use since the 16th century. Assembling objects and grouping them in a particular way became itself equated with a path to recognition. Understanding “nature” in particular became a focus of 18th century inquiry. Scientists sought to uncover nature’s secrets by revealing the interconnections of her underlying processes; nature’s order, they believed, could best be traced through the process of ordering. Preservation, then, transformed dead organic structures into libraries of knowledge, “embottlements” of curiosity.

Museums like the Hunterian showcase the tension between awe and repulsion felt by many at the sight of anatomical specimens. On the one hand, medical museums in general are somehow expected to inspire “shock and gore,”[1] as the title of a Daily Mail top ten list of medical museums in London suggests. Anatomical preparations in particular, as the Hunterian’s director Sam Alberti pointed out in a review of the museum, are capable of stimulating “powerful emotional responses.”[2] They are also somewhat of an ethical can of worms. The preservation and display of human remains has been the focus of an intensive controversy, culminating in the Human Tissue Act of 2004. This act provided regulations for the handling, preservation and disposal of human tissue in the United Kingdom. Similar regulations are in place for other countries.[3]

On the other hand, they also served as teaching tools, and were capable of engaging the fascination of collectors and connoisseurs. Some of the specimens found in the Hunterian museum were even sent to Hunter as gifts from influential friends or kept by patients as keepsakes.

This “hybrid status” of preserved objects in limbo between “nature and representation, art and science,”[4] has recently attracted increasing scholarly and artistic attention. It was the focus of a UK-based research network between 2010 and 2012 which brought together art historians, historians of medicine and science, taxidermists and museum curators, to investigate the “Culture of Preservation.” The ongoing fruits of this collaboration can be explored on a blog called “Preserved!” On the other side of the Atlantic, Joanna Ebenstein, a regular blogger on “Morbid Anatomy,” has created new material and virtual spaces “where death and beauty intersect.”[5] Her “Morbid Anatomy Library and Museum” combines a research library with a private museum in Brooklyn, New York. It is accessible only by prior appointment, and offers a “collection of curiosities, books, photographs, artworks, ephemera, and artifacts relating to medical museums, anatomical art, collectors and collecting, cabinets of curiosity, the history of medicine, death and society, natural history, arcane media, and curiosity and curiosities broadly considered.”[6] Ebenstein is also the architect of “Observatory,” an interdisciplinary space dedicated to lectures and presentations on a wide range of topics related to art and medicine, preserving and collecting, displaying and dissecting.

Copyright © The Hunterian Museum London

Copyright © The Hunterian Museum London

Public interest in medical museums in general, and in specimen collections in particular, also seems to have intensified in recent years. Visitor numbers at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia and at the Wellcome Collection in London, for instance, have increased steadily of late. The Wellcome noted in its 2012 activity report that its 2012 exhibition “Brains: the mind as matter” was its most popular yet, attracting more than 1400 visitors a day on average. The Hunterian itself has attracted more visitors than ever before in 2010/2011. Together with the Wellcome Collections and UCL’s Grant Museum of Zoology, it features among the 18 major museums of London’s “Museum Mile”. The ongoing popularity of Gunther van Hagen’s controversial exhibition “Body Worlds” attests to the curious fascination exerted by anatomical displays.

It is a fascination that invites reflection. Wondering through the Crystal Gallery of the Hunterian Museum, watching – and being watched by – the specimens on display, one cannot help but feel “on display” oneself – as a historical object attesting to an ongoing curiosity about death and life, about the unfathomable and daunting workings of nature, about the hair-raising and uncomfortable aspects of our existence. Museums like the Hunterian challenge our ideas of what a museum is. I dare you to get yourself to Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and wonder at your own sense of wonder.

Special thanks to Hayley Kruger at the Hunterian Museum in London, and Petra Lange-Berndt at University College London, for assistance with this piece.

All images have been reproduced courtesy of the Hunterian Museum of London.

Further reading:

Alberti, Fay Bound, and Samuel J. M. M. Alberti. “The Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons of England, London (review).” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 80, no. 3 (2006): 571–573.

Alberti, Samuel J. M. M. Morbid Curiosities : Medical Museums in Nineteenth-century Britain. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Lange-Berndt, Petra. Animal Art : Präparierte Tiere in Der Kunst, 1850-2000. München: Silke Schreiber, 2009.

Moore, Wendy. The Knife Man. London ;: Bantam Press, 2005.

Stephens, Elizabeth. Anatomy as Spectacle : Public Exhibitions of the Body from 1700 to the Present. Representations (Liverpool, England). Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2011.


[1] “Shock and Gore … The Top Medical Museums,” Mail Online, accessed January 12, 2013, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-559246/Shock-gore—The-medical-museums.html.

[2] Fay Bound Alberti and Samuel J. M. M. Alberti, “The Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons of England, London (review),” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 80, no. 3 (2006): 571–573.

[3] Bioethics Resources on the Web – Human Tissue,” http://bioethics.od.nih.gov/humantissue.html, accessed January 17, 2013

[4] “The Culture of Preservation,” accessed January 12, 2013, http://www.ucl.ac.uk/art-history/events/culture_of_preservation.

[5] “Morbid Anatomy,” http://morbidanatomy.blogspot.com/p/morbid-anatomy-library.html, accessed January 17, 2013.

[6] Ibid.

© Remedia.2013

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