Sunday, 20 May 2012

In the Anatomical Museum

photo:Hugh Pastoll

Across the quadrangle from where I work is the most compelling collection, guarded by the skeletons of two long-dead elephants.

Edinburgh’s Anatomical Museum was once the centerpiece of the medical school, a galleried hall three stories high, housing a collection devoted to comparative anatomy - a kind of democracy of bones where human skeletons took their place alongside those of other animals. In a photograph taken in 1898, below, you see the museum in its heyday, a suspended procession of whales and other cetaceans floating over the earthbound beasts below.

In the 1950s the museum was reduced to a single floor, and many of the skeletons were moved out to the nearby Museum of Scotland. Some smaller animals remain, and a gorilla stands alone in one of the fine glass and rosewood cases. All the furniture and fittings are original, with the AM monogram on the backs of chairs, and although the museum has been brought up to date here and there, with bright plastic models of various body parts and their workings, it is the old things that attract me, the curling labels with hand-inked captions, the bell jars and specimen tanks, the detailed models made from wax or papier maché.

There are strange and beautiful things here; a resin casting of lungs that looks like a delicate bloom of coral, tiny bones laid out in patterns like beadwork on a framed black cloth, and a dissected corpse looking like something dug up from a peat bog, blooming here and there with tiny silver droplets. This is the emergence of the mercury which was injected into this body"s lymphatic system to trace its routes more than two hundred years ago. And even while I’m peering closely at these things, I feel a certain inhibition, because they are not just objects, they are parts of people, or in the case of the dissected man, nearly all of a person.

Medical and anatomical museums are discreet places, not often open to the public. Our bodies are usually disposed of with ceremony, buried or consumed by fire, but these remains remain because they are or were put to use – they are objects to think about and through. As the latin motto inscribed over many European mortuaries and dissection halls exhorts Mortui Vivos Docent. Let the dead teach the living.

And the living are here too – students softly tapping keyboards or reading in bays amongst the glass cases, using the facilities of the museum for their anatomy coursework, or perhaps just liking it as a place to study – the fine polished tables and skylights and special hush. A girl leafing through a folder flicks back her long hair in front of case containing preserved brains, hunkered in their individual tanks. It is odd that of all the intricate insides of the body, a brain looks the dumbest, a cross between cauliflower and clay.

The students have grown used to their surroundings, grown used, perhaps, to the idea that their lives will be concerned with the body in a way those outside the world of medicine and healthcare are not.

As I leave, I’m stopped in my tracks by two old framed notices to the left of the doorway. They are menus of a sort, lists of body parts.

Head and Neck, one side ............................14s
Head and Neck when opened, one sIde............ 10s 
Upper Extremity .....................................14s
Perineum and Pelvis, when opened,one side ...... 5s

and so on, piece by piece.

For lack of further explanation, I have to presume this is what students of another age paid for parts to dissect. It’s the baldness of it that makes me stop; something quite extraordinary made into notices that look like a price list from a shop. They’re not callous, they’re factual, but they remind me of all the sentiments a person might have to put aside to do this kind of learning.

The museum today

I’ll be writing another posting about the museum soon, but in meantime I want to mention that it’s open to the public one day a month and that the next opening is this Saturday, 26th of May from 10:00 until 16:00 (Last entry:15:30). For further information, see the website.

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