A Design for Life, Surgeons’ Hall Museums, Edinburgh - Museums Association

A Design for Life, Surgeons’ Hall Museums, Edinburgh

This enjoyable exhibition highlights the importance of comparative anatomy and left Beccy Angus hungry for more
Beccy Angus
In 1505, the Incorporation of Surgeons and Barbers of Edinburgh was established. However, it wasn’t until 1699, when its collection of “natural and artificial curiosities” was unveiled, that the museum truly began. 
Originally used for teaching medical students, the collections grew exponentially in the 1800s when John Barclay, the distinguished anatomist, bequeathed his collection, and Charles Bell, the eminent professor of surgery, sold his to the museum. 
Leading architect William Playfair was commissioned to create a new home. Surgeons’ Hall opened its doors to the public in 1832, making it one of Scotland’s oldest museums. 
Skip forward almost two centuries and in 2015 the museum reopened to the public, having been closed for an 18-month redevelopment and full redisplay – the Lister Project. 
It included the first radical alterations to the building since 1908, focusing on accessibility and giving a new lease of life to the collection with a modern redisplay that challenges and complements the traditional structure. 
Striking entrance
Walking in from the street, you are met by the striking, columned Playfair building, but you actually enter to the side through a contemporary, glass-fronted link. 
At the top of the stairs on the third floor, looking down you find yourself following animal footprints, something unexpected for a human medical collection. They lead the way past the reception and into the temporary exhibition space and home of the exhibition A Design for Life. 
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the study of comparative anatomy was an integral part of medical education, and when the public first began to visit Surgeons’ Hall, there would have been a large collection of zoological artefacts on display. 
Comparative anatomy has its origins in ancient times, when anatomists began to dissect different species, in order to better understand life and its processes. This temporary exhibition highlights the subject as an important and forgotten piece in the museum’s history. 
The space is by the main entrance and separate from the rest of the museum. It is quite a small and bright area that has a different feel from other parts of the venue, perhaps because it has none of the traditional architectural features seen throughout the rest of the museum. 
Stepping off the animal footprints and into the temporary exhibition space, your gaze is directed between two traditional cabinets to the back wall, where the title of the exhibition is displayed above five display boxes. The exhibition is a mix of objects, from paintings and books to skeletons and specimens, with the more traditional labels and panels providing information. 
There is no clear route around the space – but I don’t think this matters. I started right in the middle, objects first. Watching other visitors walk around the exhibition was interesting – no one went the same way. 
Groups split up and looked at different objects, then began sharing with phrases such as “have you seen this…?”, “did you know…?” or “wow, look at this…”. It seemed to be promoting exploration and conversation. While visitors generally didn’t stay long, there seemed to be a sense of genuine surprise and intrigue. 
Beautifully displayed
The display of the objects, especially the skeletons, is beautifully done and one of my favourite parts of the exhibition. Five skeletons, representing each group of vertebrates, are picked out and placed in what look like floating Perspex boxes along the back wall. 
Black backgrounds to these cases mean the specimens stand out from a distance, while highlighting details on closer inspection. As you walk around each box, the reflections made by the lights against the shiny, black backdrops move around and fill the empty space in the case. 
In the centre stands a primate skeleton, this time with a black base allowing you to pick out different details. Two wooden cabinets, remnants of the pathology gallery, are more traditional in style. The shelves are satisfyingly full, hinting at the idea of a cabinet of curiosity. 
Each shelf explores a set of specimens from a different species. Seeing them side by side and being able to compare for yourself really helps to show what comparative study is. For example, you find yourself looking for the similarities between the anatomy of a bat wing and a human arm. 
One lower-level case holds four beautifully illustrated books that you want to pick up and flick through to discover more of the intricate drawings. The labels focus on the objects, picking out one or two features, which help you to know what you should be looking for. 
On three of the four walls are five panels between framed pictures. The information on these delve into the history of comparative anatomy and medical collections from 129AD up until the museum’s most recent collections. 
Once I began reading, I realised they did have an order, although this flow is not immediately obvious in the space. There was so much information on the panels, not in terms of word count but in the amount that was explained, that I had to read them all more than once. 
In total, 17 men – all important to the story – were introduced. On one hand, I needed less, on the other, I wanted more. I wanted to be able to find out more depth of information, but felt there was too much going on to properly understand. On occasions, the timeline jumped out of order, which left me finding it hard to follow the journey. 
The style of the panels complemented those throughout the rest of the museum. However, I felt that they could have been broken up a little, and more made of the white walls in order to create a flow around the room. 
There were some beautiful illustrations used on the panels, in the top shelves of the cabinets and in the promotional image for the exhibition. It would have been amazing to have seen these blown up larger across the walls, so that they could be fully appreciated.
I enjoyed the exhibition – the links back to the origins of the museum combined with the mix of the modern and traditional displays is creatively and beautifully done. The display of the objects is perhaps more successful than the information panels. Having said that, the content left me wanting to know more and to further investigate the subject, specimens and objects.
Beccy Angus is the interpretation manager at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland 
Project data
  • Cost £10,000
  • Main funder Surgeons’ Hall Museums 
  • Exhibition design, lighting and interpretation Surgeons’ Hall Museums
  • Graphic design Phoenix Print
  • Exhibition ends Easter 2020
  • Admission Free for Museums Association members

Leave a comment

You must be signed in to post a comment.


Join the Museums Association today to read this article

Over 12,000 museum professionals have already become members. Join to gain access to exclusive articles, free entry to museums and access to our members events.