The Royal London Hospital Museum

In General on July 14, 2013 at 10:48 am

Back after a long break! I must apologise. My excuse is infallible though – I’m lazier than you would believe.

But back to visiting museums and chatting about them, beginning with one of London’s many medical museums – the Royal London Hospital Museum.

As with so many hospital museums, the Royal London is pretty well hidden. I was looking for the Queen Mary, University of London library at Whitechapel, which is attached to the hospital also (the museum is managed under the aegis of Barts and the London, Queen Mary’s medical school). Both were impossible to find, despite me having a map. I had no intention of visiting the museum, but as I had arrived in some sort of geographical vortex that wasn’t where it should be, I thought I probably should go to the museum as well. If you dropped me off in Whitechapel now, it would take me an hour to find the place again. (Here is where I apologise for the lack of photos – I didn’t have my camera with me, and their website has no photos.)

The Royal London Hospital itself is fascinating. Before the rise of the NHS, this was a free hospital, one that took on all comers, dependent on charitable donations. This kind of thing immediately has a beneficial effect on my faith in humanity. I find it is easy to look back on the past and judge people by very harsh standards – it is easy to forget that they were people too, and although they may have operated under a different moral code, many of them still believed in alleviating hardship and doing some good in this world. Some famous names have passed through its doors. As staff, children’s charity founder Dr Barnardo, pioneer surgeon William Blizard and nursing legend Florence Nightingale – followed in the twentieth century by nursing legend Edith Cavell. One famous patient in particular also stands out – Joseph Merrick, the “Elephant Man.”

There is a case devoted to Merrick and his treatment under Dr Treves, which was the highlight of the museum for me. It holds a number of his belongings, including his famous mask, and a replica of his skeleton (the real thing is also held in the collection). My first reaction was how very small he was – possibly shorter than me. That seemed to magnify the colossal deformity he lived with – it looks like a weight that would have been as hard to bear physically as it was emotionally.

There is also a small section on forensic medicine, and with a focus on the Whitechapel Murders – more famously known, of course, as the Ripper Murders. Celebrating a pretty big failure of forensic medicine there, but it is to be expected – Whitechapel *thrives* on Ripper Lore, Ripper walking tours, Ripper Lectures, anything, basically, about this famously grizzly serial killer. Now this, to me, is bizarre. I understand the fascination of unsolved crime to an extend, but let us pause for a moment and think about this. Think of a serial killer who has been caught (or not) in your lifetime. Now think about going on a walking tour of the sites of their crimes. Does that make you feel uncomfortable? Thought so. It’s amazing what a certain distance in time, or the deeming of an event to be history, can do to its emotional impact. This is a variant of the “Archaeology is still grave robbery” argument, which I think about quite a bit – I’m fascinated between the dividing line that history draws between the horrors of the past and the horrors of the almost-present.

But anyhoo – that’s a needlessly heavy sidetrack we need not continue down here. The museum does a passable job of detailing the rest of the hospital’s history, but as usual, it’s a bit of a whistle-stop tour. A common occurrence in the hospital museum world, the Royal London Hospital Museum is in a dingy basement of an old hospital church, and so space is limited. Funding also, although the displays in here are considerably nicer than some I’ve seen before.

There is a small gift shop selling mostly books, but the sole member of staff there didn’t even look up when I came in or loitered around the shop. I wanted to chat a bit about the museum and was sorely tempted by a book, but I was so irritated at not being able to get their attention I left without either. Poor customer service in a museum is pretty unforgivable. No one gets into this line of work for the money or the fame (unless they are deluded), so I think being personable and being able to communicate a bit of enthusiasm for what you do is essential. It is entirely possible I caught the museum on a bad day, of course, but even so. I huffed out of there a bit offended, which is never what you’re looking for on a museum visit.

The Royal London Hospital Museum is located in a tear in the time-space continuum near Whitechapel – here is a link to a map, but be prepared to search around for it, and treat the signposts in the street with a bit of caution – they led me astray twice. The museum is open Tuesday-Friday, 10am-4.30pm, and entry is free. If you’re in the Whitechapel area, I recommend it, but I wouldn’t make a special trip.


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