The Hunterian Museum Reopens: And It Is Immense
Central London's outstanding museum of surgery reopens after a six-year absence. It is immense.
Welcome to a labyrinth of tissues; a temple of specimen, speculum and sinew. Every object here could furnish an essay. Dental curiosities, splayed and pickled organs, foetal progressions, malformed puppies... an anatomical oddity lies on every shelf. It's bewildering. It's overpowering. It's the Hunterian.
London's premiere surgical museum has been closed for six years thanks to rebuilding work, hampered by Covid complications. But now it's back, and ten times as slick.
A crystal chasm of specimen jars
Every guidebook to London will direct its readers to the 'hidden gem' of Lincoln's Inn Fields. They're usually talking about Sir John Soane's Museum to the north of the square. But we always loved the other 'little known museum' across the park.
The Hunterian Museum is named for the pioneering and eccentric 18th century surgeon John Hunter. His lifetime collection of surgical and zoological specimens forms the nucleus of the museum. A quarter of a millennium on, it still beguiles.
The new-look Hunterian is a thing of beauty, which is quite an achievement for a museum that includes two-headed skulls and malformed foetuses. We start with an introduction to the man and the museum, with small displays about the surgical landscape of Hunter's times, as well as biographical displays about his training, practice and wider life.
There's much to see here, augmented with some artful touch-screens and neatly interposed sound effects. Listen out for the roar of a leopard — one of several unlikely animals Hunter kept at his Earl's Court mansion.
After this narrative opening, the museum debouches into a crystal chasm of specimen jars. This is the spine of the place, with the infinite diversity of nature arrayed along the walls; a dewey-decimal library of the flesh. Hidden rooms poke off like ribs, continuing the story of Hunter's remarkable life. Honestly, you could spend hours in here.
Into the future
The Hunterian Museum is housed within the Royal College of Surgeons headquarters, and so it is apt and welcome that the museum does not end with Hunter's collection. The final three galleries are devoted to modern medicine and recent advances in surgery.
This section could almost be a museum in its own right, with countless reminders of the remarkable surgical progress made throughout the 20th century — and the tech advances of our own time. The penultimate gallery features a tremendous interactive, where you can drag-and-zoom a 3D model of the human body, focusing on vasculature, skeleton, nervous system, or digestive bits.
The final object, if that's the right word, is a human heart, removed from a transplant recipient who is still alive and was in attendance at the press preview. Imagine that. To look at your own heart in a museum cabinet. This would have been science fiction short story a few decades ago. It's a fitting, forward-looking twist to a museum that surprises at every turn.
We'd recommend the place for pretty much everyone. Small children might find some of the exhibits a little too much, but older children and teens will find the place fascinating. Look out for a forthcoming programme of events to support the reopening.
In conclusion: The new-look Hunterian is a museum that appeals to the heart and the head, and sundry other organs besides. We want to go back already.
The Hunterian Museum (reopens 16 May 2023) is on the south side of Lincoln's Inn Fields. It's totally free to visit, with no booking. Open Tue-Sat, 10am-5pm. No photography is permitted, unfortunately, and all images in this article (by the author) should not be reproduced.
Last Updated 15 May 2023