It takes a certain type of person who wants to spend a couple of hours viewing pickled human organs and archaic tools for hacking up body parts. Those in the medical profession obviously have a professional interest. But also, ever since 1832, the Royal College of Surgeons Edinburgh has recognised that there is a significant number of members of the general public who would like to satiate their morbid curiosity in the surgeon’s art.
When the Surgeons' Hall Museum originally opened to the public, it was in the wake of ghoulish tales of graveyard body-snatchers ("resurrectionists”) and Edinburgh had been riveted by the gruesome Burke and Hare trial. In 1828, the pair had murdered 16 people in ten months, selling their corpses to a local doctor for dissection in his anatomy lectures.
The Anatomy Act was also passed in 1832, licensing dissection and giving the medical profession unprecedented access to the cadavers that it so desperately needed, especially in Edinburgh’s hotbed of pioneering anatomical study.
It was the darker aspects behind the august, neo-classical facade of the Surgeons’ Hall Museum that initially intrigued me and that I played up in my sell to my two boys aged 5 and 9. In particular, the museum is famed for having a death mask of William Burke and a pocket book made from his tanned skin after he was publicly dissected.
In tone and content, today’s museum is a reflection of its founding years. The original Playfair building actually houses three museums - The History of Surgery Museum, The Wohl Pathology Museum, and The Dental Collection. As you walk around the display cabinets, Edinburgh's Royal College of Surgeons’ own story is framed within the larger story of the development of surgery. Many display objects (bones, organs, tools, and artwork) were donated by members, so it’s natural in the limited space to draw on history closer to home - whether it’s Simpson’s early use of chloroform as an anaesthetic or development of prosthetic limbs.
On first arriving, we sat in the circular anatomy theatre to watch a recreation of Archibald Pitcairne’s first dissection in 1701. As a pale, outstretched dummy lit up with various body parts Pitcairne's video-recorded talking head explains some early anatomical findings. It's quite short, though the early medical diction was a little too dry to keep the kids fully engaged to the end.
The museum, which re-opened in 2015 after a 4.5 million lottery makeover, has a variety of multimedia features throughout, such as touch screens, videos, and more tailored, hands-on items like its sternal retractor where you can test the force required for opening a human rib cage.
The kids did take to the Museum's quiz, a double sheet handed out at the box office for which they had to find the answers throughout the exhibition - like what did the red and white colours on the barber’s pole represent (bloody bandages) and find the tiny statue of "the very famous Scottish doctor" (Simpson).
This kept us occupied til we got waylaid by other objects in a cabinet about discoveries in antiseptic surgery - notably, the pale humerus fracture of a 6-year-old in the 19th century whose upper arm was amputated 8 days after being run over by a cart. And suspended in a tall jar alongside it, the ghostly leg of another child. The museum’s info cards explaining each object are succinct and dispassionate, leaving plenty for the imagination to dwell on. In these two cases, both children survived the trauma of amputation we are told.
Individual objects such as these are the museum’s, ahem, lifeblood. The upper hall housing the Wohl Pathology Museum is absolutely stacked with them. Shelves of skulls exhibiting all sorts of ailments, whole skeletons and a multitude of body parts. Each has some medical significance - a hand specimen, for example, shows an ulcerating tumour called basal cell carcinoma, which occurred in chimney sweeps and paraffin workers.
In death, many of the human parts bring history to life. A section on battle wounds has a famous skull of a soldier killed at the battle of Culloden in 1746. It shows a sizeable hole created by a large musket ball which entered the top of the victim's skull and then exited it. Another skull belonging to a French soldier who fought in the Battle of the Pyramids in Egypt in 1798 reveals a long, sabre cut slit in the top of it.
There’s some levity to be had in the many pictures of dentists pulling teeth in the dental museum, although some of the ferocious looking dental tools may cause you to wince.
We left Burke’s death mask to the last, which my eldest stood and stared at for a while, before peppering me with questions about his lurid crimes and final demise. The museum info card helped with its longer-than-usual explainer about the Edinburgh riots to see Burke’s dissected body. There was also an unnerving, plaster cast bust and skull of the murderous duo’s associate John Brogan which led to even more questions.
I found something fascinating at every turn. However, the boys' attention spans - particularly my youngest - began to flag on this unusually hot Edinburgh day. There are so many exhibits to see, that it would probably have helped if I had given myself a few hours to visit the museum by myself and then taken the kids (or just the eldest) on a short tour of chosen exhibits.
Like Camera Obscura, tickets are good for a day, meaning you can leave for a break and come back later in the day. Previewing the exhibition might be an idea particularly for kids that might be disturbed by some of the displays. The Museum recommends ages 10+. Under 16's must be accompanied by an adult.
Adults - £7
Concessionary Rates - £4
Students with valid ID - £4
NHS staff with valid ID - £4
under 16's and over 60's - £4
Under 5s - Free
Daily: 10am-5pm (last admission 4.30pm)