The Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret

In Museums on September 17, 2012 at 2:33 pm


The Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garrett is one of those museums that you keep hearing about, but you’re not really sure where it is. It’s a bit off the beaten tourist path in London (still Zone 1, right next to London Bridge, but the main tourist drag seems to be exclusively north of the river these days). I have been meaning to go for an age, as I have spent a fair amount of my time studying and working with medical collections in the museum world, and I (like many before me) am a bit in love with Henry Wellcome, and subscribe to his philosophy of loving everything vaguely related to the long and winding history of medicine.

The approach to the Old Operating Theatre is pretty obscure – opposite the fabulous Borough Market (which I whole-heartedly recommend for food and drink and then some more food), you wander down St Thomas Street and are greeted by this ever-so-slightly alarming skull. What’s far MORE alarming, however, is the never-ending spiral staircase that comes straight after it. It is not for the faint-hearted.

This particular hill is very much worth the climb, however. Strangely in this world of pitch-perfect visitor experience, you actually enter through the most densely-packed gift shop you could ever hope to come across. Don’t get distracted – pay up and head up the stairs behind the desk to discover the museum. The first thing you will see is the beautiful Herb Garrett.

It irks me that “Old Operating Theatre” comes first in the title, because the Herb Garrett is the star for me, by miles. The smell will hit you before you go through the door, and inside are countless open displays of herbs, spices, medicinal plants, distillations, tinctures and powders, all with thoughtful hand-written explanations and thoughtful captions. There isn’t a square inch of free surface space in the place – it’s an apothecary of chaos. The ambience created by the smell is absolutely fantastic – there’s a sense of life and of discovery, purely down to the mixing aromas of all the ingredients in the room. Not only is it visually stunning (if not overwhelming), it *feels* real. And whether or not they’re sure of which herb goes where, you get a real sense for the magic and the experimental spirit that lead us to modern pharmacy.

Round the back is the Operating Theatre. This is the earliest surviving example in Europe, and it’s pretty atmospheric. This was a teaching theatre above all, and you really feel that priority was given to the spectators in this environment; it’s pretty far removed from operating theatres as we know them now. As fantastic as this example is…I just didn’t fall in love with it. My heart was utterly stolen by the Herb Garret. Apothecary museums are my favourite, and this one is on a par with the great Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum in Alexandria, VA. This is a fantastic museum overall though, and anyone with an interest in surgery, anatomy, the history of medicine would get as much out of it as those with a love of pharmacy, apothecary, alchemy and chemistry. And big old baskets of Lavendar. You simply MUST go and visit as soon as possible.

The Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garrett is open 10.30am-5pm every day (but be careful to check for Christmas and New Year closures). Full price admission is £6, with a range of concessions – WELL worth it. Their website is quite cluttered and in need of a bit of a re-vamp, but it has some pretty good information and resources if you’re patient enough to put up with the backgrounds.

  1. This looks really cool. I’d never heard of it! Shame it’s not free (probably why it fell off my radar), but you can’t really complain for £6. P.S. I ❤ this blog!

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