There is an abundance of great museums in Edinburgh. The National Museum of Scotland is one of my favourite places in the whole city but until yesterday I have never visited the Surgeons’ Hall Museums. Yesterday they held a special event as part of the Festival of Museums weekend, where entry was free and there were special activities such as anatomy drawing and musical performances. It was also their last day open to the public until at least Summer 2015 due to refurbishment so I knew I had to go.
The Surgeons’ Hall Museums actually consist of three museums – The Dental Museum, The History of Surgery Museum and The Pathology Museum. The Pathology Museum is well-known in Edinburgh as being where you go to look at gruesome things. As you might expect, it has real, preserved human remains as well as reconstructions so is not for the weak stomached. Indeed, half of this part is only accessible to special guided or educational tours. But there is plenty to see in the lower half to sate your curiosity. The exhibits are divided by ailment – I found the pregnancy (believe me, if you’re about to have the very first c-section, pregnancy is an ailment) and the gangrene section almost too much to take but so fascinating – morbid curiosity I guess. There is also a large section on war casualties, including someone shot in the face and preserved tattooed skin, that really brings home the horror of war.
Situated over two floors, The History of Surgery Museum looks at Edinburgh’s illustrious contribution to the world of modern medicine including the discovery of chloroform as anaesthesia and the breakthrough of antiseptic. Upstairs focuses on more contemporary breakthroughs such as ophthalmology, plastic surgery and keyhole surgery. There are a few things to have a go of including keyhole surgery instruments – turns out I’m really bad at it! It shows failure and scandal as well as success though – the prime example being the case of Dr Robert Knox, one of the most respected surgeons of his time and he was the founder and former curator of the museum. His involvement with the Burke and Hare murders (he accepted the dubiously gained bodies) and subsequent escape from prosecution brought outrage to the people of Edinburgh and shame to the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh who forced his resignation.
The Dental Museum is contained to one room and is truly terrifying. From paintings showing grinning dentist wrenching free teeth, to tool-kits containing nothing more than a big hammer, it makes you glad to see the progress of modern dentistry!
I’m glad I finally visited the Surgeons’ Hall Museums. There is a vast amount of information on display, too much to really take in on one short trip but I’ll definitely be interested to going along after its reopened to find out more. The focus is to make the museum more accessible as well as to re-display and make more out of their collections and work on preserving their historic building. You can read more about the refurbishment here. It’s certainly an exciting time for the museum and visitors who will treated to an enhanced experience from next year.
Although these museums are now closed, there is still plenty to do today during the last day of the Festival of Museums across Scotland. Click here to look at today’s calendar. The Ghosts in a Gallery event at the Scottish National Gallery in association with Edinburgh International Festival sounds particularly intriguing…