Death at the museum

Somewhere in the grounds of Guy’s Hospital near London Bridge, is the most peculiar museum you’ve never seen. The Gordon Museum occupies two wood-panelled rectangular rooms, which connect at the ground floor something like a figure of eight. It has two galleries lined with shelves like an elegant library. But these shelves do not contain books; they are occupied by glass jars, inside each of which is some diseased limb or organ – an atrophied brain; a liver with cirrhosis; a pox-ridden arm. At times there may be an entire foetus. There are at least 8,000 of these specimens in the museum. Ground level is given over to Joseph Towne‘s remarkable anatomical models, striking waxworks of human figures,  often diseased, forever stricken with peculiar and fascinating illnesses.

The Gordon Museum is effectively a museum of pathology, a library of illness, and it is not open to the public. I visited a few years with a view to writing about this fascinating establishment, and while the curator granted me a long tour he was very clear that he did not want any publicity as he didn’t want people snooping around his specimens. It was a serious place for medical folk, not rubberneckers, a distinction it shares with the infamous Black Museum run by the Met Police.

Those intrigued by the Gordon Museum can get some sense of its contents when you visit the Museum of London’s gleefully gruesome new exhibition, Doctors, Directors and Resurrection Men, where some Gordon Museum objects are on display. Prompted by the archeological excavation of a hospital graveyard which contained numerous early 19th-century skeletons, the exhibition explores the entwined topics of dissection, death, medicine and graverobbers with entertaining relish.

It is interesting to note the ways museums confront the subject of death. While the Gordon Museum keeps the public away, the Wellcome Collection is prospering with exhibitions that frequently consider and confront mortality with few qualms – indeed their next big exhibition is titled Death: A Self-Portrait.  The issue of representing dead humans in a museum remains a contentious one, with many museums choosing to present models and casts of human skeletons rather than the real thing (as if that really makes any kind of a difference). The Museum of London – perhaps emboldened by the Wellcome’s brilliant and sympathetic use of the MoL’s skeletons in 2008 – take a necessarily but still admirably grown-up approach to the human remains on display in this exhibition. There are plenty of bones, and they are thoughtfully treated.

Ironically, then, the most dramatic exhibits tend to be models. The best of these is probably a loan from the Royal Academy of James Legg, a criminal who was flayed and posed on a cross to settle an artistic debate. Legg’s mutilated body was preserved in plaster. There are also a number of Townes’s models, including the stunning human skeleton he sculpted from wood at the age of 16, something he did despite never having seen one in real life and which earned him his job for life at Guy’s Hospital as their in-house model maker.

The most striking ‘real’ skeleton is hidden away in the corner, the remains of a small boy preserved in shellac and looking for all the world like something from Alien. Even this inescapably gruesome spectacle is a far cry from the horrors of previous centuries, when museums had a much less cautious approach to human remains, perhaps due to centuries of seeing saints relics – bits of skin, teeth and bones – on display in holy places. We at least, though, have come a long way from the indignities suffered post-life by Angelo Soliman, an African who moved in high circles in 18th-century Europe but, upon death, was nonetheless stuffed, dressed in ‘African’ clothes and put on display in a cabinet of curiosities among some animals and assorted wildlife. This grotesque display was thankfully destroyed by fire in 1848.

Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men is at the Museum of London until April. 

3 responses to “Death at the museum

  1. Yeow! Gave me the creeps. Have put it down on the list of must-sees in London next trip.

  2. You’re in charge of making sure I remember to go to this! Maybe I should take Daughter #1 with me 🙂

  3. Pingback: Death and collecting | The Great Wen

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