Museums: Medicine and the Science of Health

New kinds of interpretative experiences beyond the traditional ways of exploring and explaining about medicine and the human body have been made possible by new technologies, and by the mission of specialist medical and scientific institutions to communicate their activities. Val Baynton takes a look at the choices for groups wishing to delve beneath the skin.

There are over 25 museums and specialist collections in London, alone, connected to the theme of health and medicine and that’s not counting the new Body Worlds experience that gives a far reaching insight into the human body and how it works. Several more can be found nationally too.

Spare Parts: New Organs of Creation. © Burton Nitta Science Gallery London

Spare Parts: New Organs of Creation. © Burton Nitta Science Gallery London

This is an all-important aspect of our heritage, because without the research and advances made by scientists and medical pioneers, society and ‘the human condition’ would surely be very different today.

Amongst places to visit are those relating to medical research, nursing, mental health, dentistry, obstetrics, pharmaceuticals, optometry, pathology, medicinal plants and surgical instruments.

Opening times and admission charges vary – groups should pre-book as at some museums arrangements may be made to visit outside of normal opening hours and there are often special events, talks and exhibitions that you may wish to include when you visit. Several museums are only accessible to small groups. Visit medicalmuseums.org to find out all the museums on this theme in London.

In part one of our museum feature, we look at medical and health related museums around the UK, and in part two we investigate those with a musical theme. In part three we finish with heritage attraction news.

New ways of exploring health

Body Worlds

Body Worlds

Created by Dr Gunther von Hagens and his co-director and wife Dr Angelina Whalley, Body Worlds at Piccadilly, London is an interactive exhibition revealing the most detailed-ever journey around the human body. It features real bodies and body parts donated to be preserved by Dr von Hagens’ patented ‘plastination’ technique, which replaces fat and water in cells with complex synthetics.

Health and education are at the heart of the museum, with over 200 exhibits and displays exploring the ageing process, diet and cholesterol, the beating heart and cardiovascular systems, and pregnancy and reproduction, in more detail than has ever been previously possible. Healthy and diseased organs are shown side by side, allowing visitors to see how lifestyle choices affect the body.

Interactive elements throughout the exhibition include a CPR display where visitors can learn how to save lives, a ‘smoking app’ which shows the effect smoking has on the body, blood pressure and heart rate monitors and even an Anatomical Mirror where museum-goers can see their whole bodies reflected back, organs and all. The exhibition highlights the beauty and complexity of a body but also aims to teach how and why we should all look after them.

Spare Parts: Crafting the Body. Amy Congdon © Science Gallery London

Spare Parts: Crafting the Body. Amy Congdon © Science Gallery London

Science, Health and Art

Newly opened is the Science Gallery London, which is part of a mission by King’s College London to connect art, science and health to drive innovation and creative thinking in the heart of the city. The free-to-visit space is at London Bridge, and three seasons will each focus on a theme through exhibitions, events, performances, live experiments, open discussions and festivals.

All will have scientific engagement at their core and the programming draws on and reflects a broad range of expertise in health and wellbeing. The current exhibition Spare Parts runs until 12th May. Science Gallery London is part of the Global Science Gallery Network – which will see eight galleries open or in development worldwide by 2020, connecting King’s researchers to galleries in locations including Dublin, Detroit, Venice, Bengaluru and Melbourne.

Craft & Graft exhibition at the Crick Institute. © Thomas Farnetti

Craft & Graft exhibition at the Crick Institute. © Thomas Farnetti

Life-changing Science

The Francis Crick Institute opposite St Pancras International Station is an impressive state-of-the art building housing some 1,500 scientists and specialist technicians.

Its exhibition, seminar, lecture and events programme, aims to enable people to understand its work as a biomedical discovery institute researching the biology underlying human health. Its work looks at how disease develops to discover ways of preventing, diagnosing and treating illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, stroke and neurodegenerative diseases.

The current exhibition ‘Craft & Graft’, on until 30th November, looks behind the scenes at the methods used in the Crick’s labs. From processes such as cleaning the 750,000 glass flasks, bottles and test-tubes used each year to the work of the microscopy team the exhibition explains ‘how they do it!’

Set of 50 artificial glass eyes from the medical history galleries. © Science Museum London

Set of 50 artificial glass eyes from the medical history galleries. © Science Museum London

Understanding Science and Medicine

The Medical Collections at the Science Museum in South Kensington have a global scope and The Wellcome Wing, with its focus on bio-science, makes the Museum the world’s leading centre for the presentation of contemporary science to the public.

The Science and Art of Medicine and Glimpses of Medical History galleries closed in 2015 but will reopen this autumn as a £24m new medicine gallery. The collection includes some 2,500 medical artefacts covering 500 years of history and will enable visitors to discover how lives have been transformed by changes in medical research and practice.

Vanitas, Wellcome Collection. A Vanitas is a work of art highlighting the transience of life and the certainty of death. This wax and cloth example – modelled on Queen Elizabeth I – shows symbols of mortality, including a skull and insects eating decaying flesh.

Vanitas, Wellcome Collection. A Vanitas is a work of art highlighting the transience of life and the certainty of death. This wax and cloth example – modelled on Queen Elizabeth I – shows symbols of mortality, including a skull and insects eating decaying flesh.

Medical Curiosities

Continuing the Wellcome connection, groups can visit the Wellcome Collection itself too. Close to Euston Station, the collection is formed from the medical curiosities gathered by philanthropist, pharmacist and entrepreneur, Henry Wellcome.

Today, the free museum and library explores connections between medicine, life and art in the past, present and future and aims to challenge how people think and feel about health. The permanent exhibition Medicine Man examines how people have viewed the basics of life over the centuries – birth, health, sex and death – and temporary exhibitions run alongside throughout the year.

Royal London Hospital Museum

Royal London Hospital Museum

Nursing Heritage

You can learn more about nursing at the Royal London Hospital Museum, based in the crypt of St Augustine with St Phillips Church in Newark Street. Here, the stories of Sir William Blizard (in 1785, he founded a medical school attached to The London Hospital – the first of its kind), hospital matron Eva Luckes, Dr Barnardo and First World War nurse Edith Cavell are told.

Your group can also discover the medical advances made at the hospital and their impact on modern medicine and see a replica skeleton of Joseph Merrick (the ‘Elephant Man’), with original documentation from his residence in the hospital, alongside the original hospital charter of 1759. Introductory talks are available.

Other London collections with links to nursing history are the British Red Cross Museum and Archives and the Royal College of Nursing Library and Heritage Centre.

Florence Nightingale demonstrates her lamp and brings the past to life. © Florence Nightingale Museum, London

Florence Nightingale demonstrates her lamp and brings the past to life. © Florence Nightingale Museum, London

The lady of the lamp

Florence Nightingale was born on 12th May 1820, and became the world’s most famous nurse. The Florence Nightingale Museum at St Thomas’s Hospital in London will mark the 200th anniversary of her birth by celebrating her many achievements – including her work in the Crimea where she earned the epithet, ‘The Lady with the Lamp’, and the establishment of the Nightingale Training School for Nurses at St Thomas’s in 1860.

Already available for groups to book when visiting the museum is a talk with Florence Nightingale herself – played by one of the museums re-enactors. This tells the story of Nightingale’s struggles to become a nurse, overcoming the barriers of Victorian society and its expectations and looks at her many achievements.

Groups can also book a walking tour of ‘Nightingale’s London’ with Blue Badge Guide, Julie Chandler of London Town Tours and it can be tailored to your group in terms of length and duration. Walking tours end up at the Museum where you can meet the Curator on arrival for an introductory talk about the collection. Groups can alternatively meet another nurse, Mary Seacole, and learn about her life and work in the Crimea.

The museum collection, itself, includes personal items that belonged to Florence Nightingale such as the medicine chest she took to the battlefield and Athena, her pet owl. This year’s temporary exhibition is about the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, and next year’s will look at Nightingale’s influence as a leader and innovator on the contemporary world and on modern day nursing and women scientists.

Re-imagining Museum Visits for the Future

Asimo, a robot from the previous Robots Exhibition at the Science Museum held in 2017 is the type of robot likely to inspire the new interactive experiences. © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum.

Asimo, a robot from the previous Robots Exhibition at the Science Museum held in 2017 is the type of robot likely to inspire the new interactive experiences. © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum.

The way that visitors will experience museums is continuing to develop and two interactive experiences are expected to go live at the Science Museum and Natural History Museum in the middle of 2020.

Working together on the projects are creative content studio Factory 42, the Almeida Theatre, the Natural History Museum, Science Museum Group and the University of Exeter. By using storytelling and cutting-edge virtual technology the new immersive experiences will enable exhibits to ‘come to life’, allowing visitors to have exciting, interactive encounters with, for example, robots or dinosaurs.

The projects will create two separate adventure game visitor experiences exploring multi-sensory and interactive worlds. Visitors to the museums will play detectives roles and meet and interact with a cast of digital characters, from androids and artificial intelligences to velociraptors and fossils. Both experiences will mix real-life physical environments where visitors can touch, smell and hear things with digital technologies and creatures that will enable audiences to interact in ways not normally possible and aim to boost understanding and enjoyment of the natural world and science. The aim is to help the interpretation of collections that address complex themes and ideas, and by doing so, re-shape the cultural heritage sector for the 21st century.

The Arts Council is launching a Digital Culture Network to support cultural organisations to explore and use digital technologies including content production and to create new types of audience experiences. This is in addition to their CreativeXR project, which gives funds to museums to develop interpretations using virtual and augmented reality. Last year, its funding supported the Dambusters VR Experience, which has just opened as part of London’s RAF Museum’s Immersive Histories project.

The operating theatre at The Old Operating Theatre London. © Old Operating Theatre London

The operating theatre at The Old Operating Theatre London. © Old Operating Theatre London

Tales of the Operating Room

If you have wondered how early operations were carried out, then the Old Operating Theatre Museum & Herb Garret, near to London Bridge underground station, could be the place for your group to visit.

It’s the oldest surviving operating theatre in Europe and it’s not for the squeamish with its displays of surgical instruments and tales of operations without anaesthetics or antibiotics! In 1822, the theatre was housed in the herb garret of the old St Thomas’s Hospital church, but was on the same level as the women’s ward.

Today, as a museum, access is up a steep and narrow flight of stairs. Themed talks exploring the history of the theatre and garret, can be booked and a linked walk to explore the herb gardens of the London Bridge Area can be added on to a visit. A varied programme of weekly talks and events is also available. GTOs should note that the museum is no longer a partner of the National Trust.

Herbs have long been an important part of medicine and the Society of Apothecaries founded the Chelsea Physic Garden in 1673 to grow medicinal plants.

Poppies are just some of the medicinal plants at the Chelsea Physic Garden.

Poppies are just some of the medicinal plants at the Chelsea Physic Garden.

The botanic garden is London’s oldest, it covers four acres on the banks of the Thames on a site purchased by Sir Hans Sloane and leased to the Apothecaries in perpetuity. Today there are around 5,000 different edible, useful and medicinal plants and during a visit your group will discover more about its history, its gardeners over the last three centuries and the uses of its plants. Visits as well as catering must be prebooked. Discover more about plants used in medicine at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and about pharmacy at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society Museum.

Fortunately, today, we do not have to undergo an operation without anaesthetic. You can find out about pain relief at the museum in the Anaesthesia Heritage Centre in Portland Place, Marylebone, where there are over 4,500 objects relating to the history of anaesthetics. Groups (up to 20 people) must be pre-booked and the visit includes a talk, object handling and a tour of the museum.

Another essential element of successful surgery was the development of antibiotics. Nearby, at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, The Alexander Fleming Museum will allow your group to learn all about Fleming and how he discovered penicillin in 1928 – and the laboratory has been restored to how it would look at this time.

The museum is open Monday to Thursday between 10.00 and 13.00, but visits can be arranged outside of these times.

The galleries at the Bethlem Museum of the Mind

The galleries at the Bethlem Museum of the Mind

Mental Health

Many medical museums are linked to a medical institution and such is the case for the Bethlem Museum of the Mind, which is based in an Art Deco building within the grounds of the Bethlem Royal Hospital in Beckenham, South London which, when it was founded in 1247, was the first institution in the UK to specialise in the care of the mentally ill.

Grayson Perry formally opened the museum in 2015, and its collection of art and historic objects supports the history of healthcare and treatment, events and exhibitions take place during the year with the next running from 1st May until 31st August, being ‘Brilliant Visions: Mescaline. Art. Psychiatry.’ This presents drawings and paintings by Surrealist artists and it aims to provide an insight into the first era of research into psychedelics and mental states. Archives and artworks from the Bethlem collection will be included.

Freud’s study. © K Urbaniak Freud Museum London.

Freud’s study. © K Urbaniak Freud Museum London.

Another museum concerned with the health of the mind is The Freud Museum in Hampstead. Based in the final home of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, visitors can see Freud’s study and consulting room along with his psychoanalytic couch, and his large antiquities collection.

The museum aims to highlight the relevance of Sigmund and his daughter, Anna, and psychoanalysis today. A programme of contemporary art exhibitions runs throughout the year.

The Thackray Medical Museum, Leeds

The Thackray Medical Museum, Leeds

Medical Museums outside of London

The Thackray Medical Museum in Leeds tells the story of medicine and gives groups the chance to explore what life was like in Victorian times. The ground floor of the museum and galleries are closing for refurbishment in May and will reopen in summer 2020.

There are two medical museums in Worcester. The Infirmary is an interactive exhibition at the University of Worcester’s City Campus combining history, science, art and technology to explore the medical stories of one of England’s oldest infirmaries. During a visit groups can meet characters from the Infirmary, compare health today to other times and places and investigate medical technology.

The second is The George Marshall Medical Museum at Worcestershire Royal Hospital and is where George Marshall’s collection of objects illustrating the way that medicine and health care have developed over the past 250 years is on display. Visitors will see the gory collection of death masks of hanged criminals, the reconstructed apothecary shop and a Victorian operating theatre.

Preparing for casualty work. © The Museum of Military Medicine

Preparing for casualty work. © The Museum of Military Medicine

Groups can visit the Museum of Military Medicine in Keogh Barracks, Aldershot on self-directed tours or by booking a guided tour. These cover the history of the Museum of Military Medicine in general or tours are available on the history of the individual corps – the Royal Army Medical Corps, the Royal Army Veterinary Corps, the Royal Army Dental Corps and the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps.

The Museum has nearly 20,000 objects in its collections ranging from uniforms, medals, medical equipment and personal artefacts associated with military medicine and nursing, both human and animal, as well as a large document and photograph archive that spans all four corps.