The Hunterian Museum reopens to the public on Tuesday 16th May after being closed for six years for a redevelopment that began its first steps in 2017. The £4.6m museum overhaul is part of a larger redevelopment of the Royal College of Surgeons in London.
Named after the 18th century surgeon and anatomist, John Hunter (1728-1793), who amassed a collection of 14,000 natural specimens, the Hunterian was keen to portray a fuller story of Hunter’s career in this redevelopment.
Though two thirds of the original specimens were lost in a second world war bombing raid, the Hunterian still holds about 3,500 items from Hunter’s collection, of which 2,000 are now on display.
The displays begin with the history of surgery, then move into Hunter’s career and his fascination with the anatomy of living things, from plants and animals to humans, then onto the legacy of his learnings into surgery today.
Wherever possible the Hunterian has researched and found the names of patients, which the museum incorporates in the displays along with as much information about the patient’s post-surgery recoveries as were recorded at the time.
Patient’s stories are central to the displays on Hunter’s legacy in 20th and 21st century surgery, bringing the emotional and psychological side of surgery to the fore.
Dawn Kemp, the director of museums and special collections at the Royal College of Surgeons of England, said: “I'm really pleased we've got much more of a patient's voice in the displays. Some date from as early as the 1720s, and the most recent ones in the displays are from just last year.
“And in the final gallery, called Transforming Lives, we have a film of interviews of surgeons and their patients. I really feel very humbled that people have shared their amazing stories with us, which have taken them through the greatest adversity and worry in their lives. They’re inspirational and hopeful too. I bet I'm not the only one to shed a tear while watching them.”
Casson Mann led the exhibition design of the Hunterian, which incorporates visually attractive displays of ancient surgical instruments and specimens as well as recent ones, bones, artworks and interactives. Fitted out by Beck and with display cases by Click Netherfield, the Hunterian’s displays are visually stimulating while conveying a clear story.
Two masterfully detailed sculptures by artist Eleanor Crook – who also made the Santa Medicina sculpture that looks over the Science Museum’s Medicine Galleries – are on show in the final gallery, one of them showing the process of open-heart surgery today. Specially commissioned by the Hunterian, Crook said that each sculpture took at least a year to make.
During the redevelopment, the Hunterian staff were able to digitise every single item in their collection, leading to a now-searchable database and better researched records.
“Hunter’s entire collection is now accessible, with photographs of every specimen, and beautifully done by Jonathan Vine,” said Kemp. “Digitisation has played a really important part of what we've been able to do – that’s about 3,500 specimens – including drawings that Hunter commissioned from artists he worked very closely with.”
The new displays also bring out under-told stories about Hunter, the anatomist. “We recognised that people didn't quite understand the Hunter was a comparative anatomist, not just a human anatomist,” said Kemp. “What he was really interested in – indeed, his passion – was understanding the connectedness of all living things. He looked at the physiology of how an organism actually worked in its environment and made comparisons between organisms, be they plant, animal or human.”
Hunter’s research provides many springing off points, some more controversial than others, said Kemp. “We’re hoping to launch a new programme of talks, events, workshops, conferences, international collaborations and research called Hunterian Provocations," she added.
"Hunter’s collection is really well placed – yes, you know, he was white man, but he was an interesting person and a springboard to be able to look at decolonisation, environmental issues, ethics and wellbeing.”
The Hunterian Provocations programme is likely to launch in September or October, said Kemp.
Located in Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London, the Hunterian is entirely wheelchair accessible and is free to enter.