I have a soft spot for specimen jars and skeletal remains. Museums of natural history, surgical pioneering or anthropological oddities have always struck me as equally suitable for lunch breaks and first dates as for serious study and research. As far as public and casually accessible encounters with mortality go, these kinds of museums are the most straightforward way of confronting the realities of human nature. But whether we should have this kind of casual access is now increasingly being questioned.
Telling history through displays of human remains presents a challenge for curators. They are responsible for contextualising exhibitions to ensure that the remains don’t become a dehumanised spectacle, while knowing they ultimately lack the ability to guarantee beyond doubt that their message will hit its target.
Last November, the Wellcome Trust decided context wasn’t enough. Its ‘Medicine Man’ collection, which had tried its best ‘to tell a global story of health and medicine’, closed after 15 years. Apparently, no effort to contextualise or to highlight marginalised stories of medicine could make up for the fact that a colonial legacy was granted the spotlight: ‘By exhibiting these items together – the very fact that they’ve ended up in one place – the story we told was that of a man with enormous wealth, power and privilege,’ Wellcome tweeted.
It sounded like a death knell for the private collections of long-dead white men. Meanwhile, the Royal College of Surgeons was busy with a six-year project redesigning the Hunterian Museum’s new exhibition space – which finally reopened last week – to tell the history of surgery and house the collections of the 18th-century anatomist, physician and surgeon John Hunter.
Born in Scotland in 1728, John Hunter became the founder of scientific surgery and operated on prominent figures of his time, including Adam Smith, David Hume, William Pitt, Thomas Gainsborough and even the infant Lord Byron.