At first appearance London appears as a sprawling homogenous maze of chaos. In reality it has developed over many years as a series of interlinked villages, each with their own unique identity and subtle variations. The East End takes in several, echoing with the long-ago cries of Spitalfields barrow boys, the occasional waft of Pie Mash ‘n Liquor and intricate winding cobblestone lanes.
In this world of ever-creeping grey skyscrapers, it’s the layers of personal history that makes London streets so unique, and there isn’t anything quite so intriguing as exploring the nooks and crannies around the epicentre of Cockney London. There are 200+ museums scattered through London, and it’s a safe bet that St Bartholomew’s Pathology Museum, tucked away in a corner of Spitalfields hospital can assume the mantle one of the most macabre and unique curious of them.
Set in a beautiful Grade II listed hall in West Smithfield, Barts Pathology Museum spans 3 mezzanine levels and houses 5,000 medical specimens. Used originally for teaching students how to recognise malaise’s and maladies, the three floors are lined with ‘pots’ full of preserved medical specimens and various remains – the oldest dating from 1756 – which are now mostly unused because of developing technology. The team at London City Nights captured beautifully in a nutshell when they said St Barts is “epitomising [the] “‘cabinet of curiosities’ Victorian mindset” and still proves to be a fascinating draw today. We found it captivating. To enter the museum, your walk first through the hospital grounds, up the stairs ‘decorated’ with an excavated stone Roman tomb, then into a beautiful room full of these macabre curios.
Standing in the room you could easily imagine being a medical student in Victorian times, walking the mezzanine floors trying to glean as much knowledge as possible. There is a fascination not only of the way people thought in past years, but also to the kind donors who wanted their illnesses to help future generations (and no doubt the people who wanted to gain a little noteriety even after their illnesses gained the upper hand.)
The building and collection are undergoing extensive conservation by the hand of curator Carla Valentine, who took over the project when the building was almost in ruins; building rubbish had been dumped, the roof was leaking and damp was wending into the room. It’s hard to imagine now, the room is pleasant and surprisingly lacking in sterility commonly associated with hospitals that I was expecting.
Though not one for the squeamish, it is beautiful. As yet the museum is not open on a daily basis or to the general public, but has been hosting a wide ranging series of talks (and is having a Silent Film Season this month) that you can sign up to.
Topics at the talks range from Sherlock Holmes to taxidermy (and the Sacred Tarts baking day which I’m rather hoping will be on again Easter this year). You can sign up to the mailing lists by emailing Carla firstname.lastname@example.org, keep in touch via Facebook or Twitter @BartsPathology or check their blog and webpage.
In case you faniced a little background history, Spitalfields takes its name from the hospital and priory, St. Mary’s Spittel that was founded in 1197. Lying in the heart of the East End, it is an area known for its spirit and strong sense of community. The hospital is unsurprisingly one of the oldest hospitals in the city, and situated in a (former) field next to the priory where the now famous market first started in the thirteenth century. Modern day Spitalfields is known for the meat markets, and most recently Sherlock Holmes.
What is the most unique museum/collection you’ve seen?