The Hunterian Museum in London is justly famous, though unexpectedly well-attended, given its grisly contents. It is an enduring medical cabinet of curiosities, originally put together by John Hunter in the 18th century, and now housed in the Royal College of Surgeons, in a shiny, clean, well-lit structure.
It contains a remarkable range of bits and pieces of humans and other animals, mounted, stuffed, pickled, boiled and skeletonized, reduced to networks of veins, organs, nerves, tumors, structures typical (the water-bearing second stomach of a camel) and peculiar (the macrocephalic skull of a human, easily a foot and a half in diameter).
Among the more prominently physical and material remains are the bones, and these range from the most minute (the barely tangible bones of an 8-week-old human foetus) to the extraordinary, as most powerfully embodied in the massive skeleton of Charles Byrne, the Irish Giant, standing 7’7″ (though billed at the time as 8’4″; see Hilary Mantel’s The Giant, O’Brien for a moving, if largely invented, account of his experience).
I had seen many of these oddities in reproduction, and read about them in Armand Marie Leroi’s Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human Body and Lawrence Weschler’s Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic Technology, and elsewhere, so I knew what to expect, in a sense. What I did not fully anticipate, though, was the sheer visceral punch of the things. Again and again, I gasped aloud, put my hand to my mouth, exclaimed without intent to do so (and was, a few times, shushed by the rather serious attendees). Nor did I anticipate that, as I lay awake that night, jet-lagged and insomniacal, I would see in sudden flashes, object after object, bone after bone, skull after skull, throughout a long, grim night.
We read of (and experience) the joys and titillations of wonder, but less often do we read of the shock and horror of the dissected corpses, of the physical pull—body part by body part—the hyper-awareness of one’s own hand when seeing the remains of another’s, of one’s own (MY own) veins and arteries, heart, liver, lungs, as I stare at the remains of those of others. Yes, even my own penis upon seeing the disembodied, artificially pigmented, scarlet red penis of some anonymous 18th century criminal.
There are works of art that induce this same sensation—José de Ribera’s Apollo Flaying Marsyas in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, or Gerard David’s Flaying of Cambyses in the Groeningemuseum in Bruges.
But the objects most strongly evoked by the body parts in the Hunterian are, of course, medieval relics. These modern relics, though, have no gold housings, no occluded rock crystals to partially conceal their horror, and, most pointedly, no magical/miraculous justification for their display. Instead, they are ostensibly there as part of an educational medical display—the collection is, after all, housed within the Royal College of Surgeons. And yet, to judge by the visitors, the bones and veins, arteries, viscera, brains, organs, and tumors are not serving such a purpose. Instead, they are working to drive us back into our bodies, forcing us to inhabit our skins, flex our muscles, articulate our bones through our tendons, and, again and again, to feel these bodies we wear but which, so long as they function more or less correctly, we quite often ignore.