A Love Letter to the Hospital Museum





As our favourite commericalised-holiday-that-profits-off-the-commodification-of-our-desire-to-be-loved-in-this-lonely-lonely-world rolls around yet again, I thought I’d write another love letter to a museum. Read last year’s Love Letter To A Little Museum, here.

This year my boo is a hospital museum, St Bartholomew’s Hospital Museum and Archives to be exact. I had applied to volunteer at the museum before I had even moved to London. How did I initially apply you ask? I just slid into their DMs on Twitter asking if I could volunteer, of course 😉 How very Valentine’s. (I will point out, though, that I still had to fill out an application form and receive some NHS volunteer training before I could start!) The fact I starting volunteering at this museum as soon as I moved to London definitely contributes to my love of the place – the archivists and volunteers are some of the first friendly faces I met and the museum is probably one of the first places I felt at home in this vast city. Barts has also allowed me to continue gaining museum experience whilst I complete my MA and gain some archival experience too. Repackaging archival material has been a fantastic and interesting project – despite making my hands drier than a desiccated mummy and spurring a new hatred for staplers and pins. Who the heck pins together documents?!


The museum’s trusty staple remover. I call it Gnasher.

As much as I personally love the museum, neither the world nor the museum’s worth revolve around me. The role Bart’s hospital museum occupies within the hospital’s campus is both an important and undercelebrated one. Naturally, a large number of people who come to the museum or use the archives are academically interested in the history of Barts and the NHS. I have chatted to PhD students researching various aspects of our society’s relationship with medicine and regularly groups of art students come with their teachers to see our famous Hogarth staircase. GCSE history students have found the museum invaluable to their course. We also get the odd Sherlock Holmes enthusiast.


However, the museum is also a liminal space. It is both within Barts grounds and outside the wards and waiting rooms; a place to spend time, waste time or eat away some at waiting time. A place to feel like you’re not in a hospital whilst knowing medical aid is available quickly. Quite a lot of our visitors are patients, family of patients or people killing time before appointments. It’s a place to stretch your legs and stimulate your mind. It is also a place where sat at a desk as you enter is a person ready to greet you. An obvious detail, you may think, but it is not as inconsequential as you would think. Maybe I am just being romantic but it is Valentine’s Day, so I am going to unashamedly wax lyrical. As museum volunteer at Barts, I have found myself occupying a role that I haven’t in my previous museum work…That of listener. I don’t know whether it is the aforementioned spatial liminality of the museum or a freedom from the often sanitised and formal nature of medical interactions that brings people to my desk. Maybe it is the fact that I am not in a uniform and the very nature of being front of house means that talking to me about the museum (or life in general) will not distract me from any tasks or work that I have to do. Being available for a natter is my work.

People talk to me about a whole range of things and I listen and ask questions. I never advise and if the guest has a concern, I always suggest that they seek advice from their healthcare professional. I am painfully aware that I am only qualified as a listener but as of yet, that has been more than enough. Often people thank me profusely for talking with them and I always reply sincerely that it is, in fact, my pleasure. I acknowledge that this post would be so much more interesting if I went in to details of the amazing stories that I have been told, the poignant tales, the celebratory moments and the sad ones. But I won’t. It would seem uncouth and a transgression of trust. I am not just a listener but a keeper too and (providing there are no safeguarding issues) what’s said to me, stays with me. It is a moving and privileged position and one that I did not expect when I signed up as a volunteer.

Now, it wouldn’t be a BooksandGuts post if I didn’t get on my soap box and preach the importance of interdisciplinary approaches to medicine and the medical humanities, so I will continue to be #onbrand. If these experiences at Barts Hospital Museum and Archive have taught me anything, it is that there is a need for these liminal spaces within healthcare. They don’t have to be museums*, I am talking about access to green places, libraries, cinemas or film nights, theatres, and so on. I have found in my experience that children’s hospitals are already nailing this – when I look back on my time in Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, my minor op was such a small part of my stay. I painted some pottery and read for a bit, popped in the theatre for an op, recovered and went home. Just because we age and understand the nature of hospital treatment doesn’t mean that a hospital stay is any less traumatic or draining on our mental resources. Should patients identify soley as a passive ‘patient’ or as a person, with interests, preferences and needs, who just so happens to be receiving treatment? There are valid practical reasons to disregard this argument; money is the obvious one as the NHS chronically has too little as well as the fact that hospitals are full of people who are sick and have limited mobility. However, I know through my NHS training that there are volunteers on the ward who can play board games, read to and have a chat to patients. They are a great way resource to ensure patients feel like they are being engaged with on a social level without mounting further pressure onto healthcare professionals.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

To conclude:


*No, I can’t believe I said that either!

September: Museums of the Month

I am back from a long hiatus due to ill health and unplanned hospital visits, but I thought what better way to dip my toe back into the blogosphere than to start a new feature. Welcome to Museums of the Month! 

Grant Museum of Zoology  

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

This museum has been on my radar since I was bought a ‘Weird Museum’ guidebook as a birthday present. I was meeting a friend from St Andrews who did her undergraduate degree in Zoology and thought this would be the perfect place to take her. I am slowly earning the reputation of ‘Museum Matcher.’ Got an obscure hobby or passion? Kate will find you a museum dedicated to it!

The Grant Museum of Zoology seemed to be half Zoology Museum half witch’s pantry, with a blend of bisected heads, skeletons, taxidermy and jars full of animals. It was great having a Zoologist friend with me, as she was so excited to see the specimens and gave detailed and enthusiastic descriptions of her favourites. However, the museum itself had great volunteers who really knew their stuff and were really friendly. My pretty basic question about the lifespan of bats led to a lovely discussion about one of my favourite animals.

The museum currently has an art installation called Agonism/Antagonism by Neus Torres Tamarit which explores the ‘genetic tug of war between the sexes.’ As well as being beautiful, the art was produced during an artist residency in the UCL Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment. As someone who loves interdisciplinary approaches to science, I found this relationship between science and art really exciting.


  • The Jar of Moles – What more can I say? The jar of moles is apparently one of the most popular specimens and it certainly won me over. It is equal parts odd and adorable.
  • The African Rock Python –Seeing this specimen took our breath away. It’s huge! The snake previously lived in the London Zoo and was donated to the museum after its death in the 60s’. The snake was so long that the specimen was prepared on the roof of the Medawar Building at UCL!
  • The Micrarium – This was possibly the best thing in the museum. So many museums focus on large specimens but this little cabinet featured microscopic slides. It was amazing to see the tiny specimens arranged in a really engaging way. I would love to see something similar in a pathology museum.

Wellcome Collection


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I have been wanting to visit the Wellcome Collection for years so I had to make it one of my first trips. I visited the Grant Museum and the Wellcome Collection on the same day and so it was my turn to be the tour guide and excitable enthusiast for my Zoologist friend. The Wellcome was getting ready for its new exhibition Living With Buildings, so I will have to pop back this month to see it.

One of my favourite things about the Wellcome is the way it looks at seemingly objective topics, such as medicine and wellness, and frames them within a wider cultural understanding. If our bodies exist in a society, then our understanding of and feelings towards those bodies will be reflective of that society. Seeing exhibits and sections of the Collection that played with that idea was amazing. The area on obesity was particularly interesting. I found the huge bookcase full of diet books especially profound. It made me think of the diet industry, which profits off people’s unhappiness with their bodies and it also made me question what is more common; a person changing their dietary habits in order to become healthier or a person determined to lose weight because they are unhappy with how they look?  If fad diets and diet books make money, then it follows that those within that industry profit off the cyclical nature of yo-yo dieting. To me, that bookcase seemed to be dedicated to that exploitation and the dangerous conflation of thinness and health.


  • The Vanitas – A vanitas is a piece of art meant to illustrate the transient nature of life and beauty and remind the viewer that vain (here meaning ‘worthlessness’) pleasures are a waste of your limited time. The style of vanitas at the Wellcome, a face split between life and death, is one of my favourite styles of Memento Mori art. I particularly loved the small details on this vanitas, especially the spindly spider on the skull.
  • The Prosthetic Nose – Syphilis is one of my favourite illnesses of all time and I have

    ‘Artificial nose, Europe, 1601-1800’ by Science Museum, London. Credit: Science Museum, London. CC BY

    read about prosthetic or ‘false’ noses being used as a means to hide the damage of tertiary syphilis.  It was exciting to finally see one. A nose prosthetic was used purely for aesthetic purposes, which I find to be very interesting. The act of wearing a false nose clearly shows others that you have damage to your actual nose, so in terms of hiding your illness, it isn’t really effective. So is a false nose more for the beholder? And what does that mean regarding venereal disease, visible illnesses and shame?

Not Quite A Museum of the Month…

Highgate Cemetery

20180916_143332888784141.jpgThe first historical place I visited when I moved to London was Highgate Cemetery. This is another place that I have been reading about for years, so it was so great to be able to finally visit.

Highgate Cemetery is a curious mix of styles, from modern graves (like that of Paul Caulfield or Douglas Adams) to dilapidated, broken Victorian graves and statues. It was great to see the personalities of the residents shine through in the gravestones which were often custom built.

I heard about Highgate Cemetery as a child. I can’t quite remember how I came across it, but I remember hearing about the “Highgate Vampire” and was both spooked and intrigued. But visiting as an adult, I found the place strikingly peaceful. I was particularly taken by the older graves which looked like they were being absorbed by the surrounding plants and trees. I live not too far away from the cemetery so I feel like I will be visiting again and again – I am interested in how Highgate Cemetery looks as the seasons change.


Curating: Thoughts from The Learning Curve.

Recently, I had the opportunity to act in a curating role for an exhibition. The exhibit was lottery funded and commissioned by a local theatre. The exhibition, While I Breathe, I hope, focuses on the St Andrews community during the First World War.


Due to having a very small team of two volunteers, I was able to have hands-on experience at every step of the process, from conception to the installation. At first, I was nervous about the weight of the task – to honour the sacrifice and courage of St Andreans, both on the home front and in foreign fields, is no mean feat. The experience was definitely a learning curve but I feel like I learnt so much more through this hands-on learn-on-the-job experience than I would have from a book or lecture.

Here are three lessons that I learnt along the way…

1. Don’t think you have to squeeze every single nugget of information into your exhibit.

Trust me. You’re going to find out so many amazing stories and facts relating to your topic and you will want to include every single one of them – but you can’t. If you did your exhibition would be too large and lack focus. We started with the idea to include information and stories not just from the war, but also examples of the make-do-and-mend attitude from which inspired the theatres opening in the interwar years. As well as that, we were also going to focus on showcasing the community spirit which has continued to grow around the theatre – people have met their spouses there, the theatre has always worked to include local schools and children in their productions. As you can see – this was just way too much content to produce in the few weeks we had to put the exhibition together. Once we had streamlined our brief, we were able to concentrate on a few stories that really spoke to the town’s motto “While I Breathe, I Hope.”

2. Be warned, you are going to get very attached to the people you research.

It was an absolute privilege to learn about and honour the memory of St Andreans involved in the war effort – both on the fields and the home front. There were tales of hope, love and plenty of examples of the cheeky and ballsy Scottish spirit that I have come to love over the past few years I have lived here. Jock Ripley, a veteran, pretended to be younger than he was so that he could go to the front and fight. When asked about his actions, he argued that his “pen must have slipped.” He survived being shot in the head – being awarded the VC for continuing to support his fellow soldiers despite his injury and the odds of their survival. His courage and cheek made me laugh, Ripley was a real rogue one, a man with principals who knew he could help and had no qualms about bending the rules to recruit himself back into active duty.

But there were also tales of tragedy. I remember losing my temper when transcribing a letter from the front informing of a local teen’s death. The language of the letter was beautiful – if there is any comfort at all to be had at this moment, it will come from the knowledge that your brother lies amongst some of the bravest men who have ever fought for King and country – but the soldier’s name was spelt wrong multiple times. I had read so much about this young man and his brother (one came home, one didn’t), poured over pictures of him, seen his “dead man’s penny” and the local newspapers report of his death. The carelessness of the letter felt like a gross indignity. I was raging. Then I realised how many letters like this must have been written, how much of a toll it would have taken on those who spent hours writing “I regret to inform you…” over and over again. Each letter signifying another life lost in a bitter and brutal war. By learning and relating to one man from a small coastal town – I was able to grasp (or rather realise that I could never grasp) the enormous scale of lost lives, lost hopes, lost loves. It was humbling, profound and harrowing all at the same time and I am so grateful for the experience. This is why museums are so important- they encourage powerful moments of connection between the present and past, they transcend personal experiences and tap into the shared human condition. They are a thousand times more effective than a textbook.

3. Plan all you want, the installation is going to throw a few spanners in the works.

First of all, Publisher is a cruel, cruel mistress. I am sure there are better programmes to use to produce posterboards, but it was all we had to hand. Don’t get me wrong – it worked and the posterboards look clean and neat, but my god did formatting them (and reformatting them…and reformatting them) lead to sleepless nights. Before finalising the content of the exhibition, we visited the space again and drew 2D plans on where we wanted everything. It was a logistical task and we still needed to arrange printing and transport for a glass case but we thought we’d sorted everything…
Except that we’d assumed the theatre would be coming up with means of actually hanging our posterboards but that wasn’t the case. They told us that they have a wire to hang from the ceiling and that all we needed was to attach hooks to the boards. Our boards were foam though and flat, there was no way we could drill picture hooks into them. Our curator came up with the ingenious idea of attaching velcro to the walls and the posterboards and so that hiccup was solved. However well you plan your layout, the practicalities of the installation process will cause you to tweak things like where things are placed, sometimes very last minute. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, there is just a difference between seeing a layout in theory and seeing the reality of that space when it is occupied.

A bonus lesson…

I learned most of all that I love heritage and museums, that whatever I end up doing, I want to in some way be a preserver and communicator of history. This exhibition was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life!

A Love Letter to the Little Museum



We all know the big guns; the British Museum, the Rijksmuseum, the Louvre, the Smithsonian, the Guggenheim and so on. These bustling hubs of historical and artistic scholarship welcome millions of visitors each year and some visitors travel across literal oceans to see the artefacts that have captured their imaginations since childhood. When I travelled to London for a palaeography summer school, I was so excited that Senate House was close enough to the British Museum to allow a trip to see the Rosetta Stone. The story of the stele had enchanted me since I was in primary school – how amazing that a stone once used as building material was the key to deciphering hieroglyphs – and to see it in person was nothing short of magical. However as much as I love the British Museum, this Valentine’s Day I am giving my heart to another. This is a love letter to the small folk museums, heritage museums, maritime museums, agricultural museums and historic houses that bejewel the landscape of the UK.

These museums, which are often run mostly (if not exclusively) by volunteers, welcome guests in the thousands rather than the millions, but this by no means makes them less worthy of praise than their monolith counterparts. In fact, I would argue that they have a massive impact on their communities. Through storytelling, dress up and activity packs, children learn the stories of those who have come before them. Museums allow them to make emotional and empathetic connections to history which could never be gained from a textbook. Events and exhibitions allow families to spend time together and create memories on a budget. For those who have watched their community change over their lifetime, museums and historic buildings provide a chance to reminisce about times gone by and tell their own oral histories. Small museums by their nature are niche, containing a wealth of information on their locale which historians, genealogists, and any interested amateur can get lost in.

Children areas

On a purely selfish note, Saint Andrews Preservation Trust Museum, ‘my’ little museum, has allowed me to gain invaluable work experience, both as a tour guide and behind the scenes. I have learned how to use Adlib software and helped at Museums at Night events. But more importantly, I have been able to have a lot more access to the inner workings of the museum than I would be afforded at a larger institution. I have met trustees and board members and had unfiltered access to the curator’s extensive knowledge of the industry. I have met the people who have lovingly put exhibits together to pay homage to the town that they have loved and lived in their entire lives. Over the next two months, I will be helping create an exhibition on St Andreans during WWI. This immeasurable fulfillment has come directly from this little museum and those who pour their heart and soul in to its upkeep, and I am so thankful for it.

This Valentine’s Day, send some love to your local historic building or museum for whilst they are little, they are so, so important.


Think Piece: I’m not a medic, can I enjoy medical museums?

My fascination with medical museums started with a college trip to the Hunterian Museum in London. The trip was a whistle-stop tour of as many science museums as possible in one day ending with a long coach ride home, and I hadn’t given much thought to the Hunterian at all. However, I do remember entering the museum with some trepidation. I had spent a lot of time in hospitals when I was young, and I wondered how I would react to a place dedicated not only to medicine but to the suffering that medicine aims to cure. My worries were unnecessary, I would fall in love with the place.

I was drawn in by the pale specimens resting in their jars. At some angles, the curvature of the glass had a magnifying effect and I found myself peering even closer, playing with the distortion, scrolling the enhanced image for some hidden clue about what made this organ special and how it affected or ended the life of whoever owned it. Far removed from the pain and heightened emotion I had witnessed in hospitals, laid out in front of me were all the secrets of the body. I was struck by the notion that we are all, quite literally, walking contradictions. The human body is an oxymoron; strong and resilient yet so fragile. We can endure terrible trauma and still survive, but we are all just one injury or illness away from the end. One person may survive being hit by lightning, another may be carried off by the winter flu. An individual may seem the perfect model of health, but below a deadly disease may be patiently biding its time until it makes its presence known. The only time I faltered was when I saw a well-developed foetus still snug in the womb. I looked around at my peers and teachers animatedly discussing the exhibit and then back at the specimen. I thought to myself that it was ironic that a foetus who never opened its eyes, preserved and well cared for, would probably physically outlast those of us that got to live. Pulvis et umbra sumus. We are dust and shadows.

I held that experience very close to my heart and thought of it often. I also went on a tour of the travelling Bodies Revealed exhibit. During the trip, I enjoyed it. A moment that stands out in my memory is when I looked at a brain tumour and thought it looked quite small- only to look across to the plaque and read that it was fatal. On reflection, I didn’t enjoy Bodies Revealed as much as I enjoyed the Hunterian. I quickly forgot about it, until I came across a news story that the company that treated the specimens had been accused of using the bodies of political prisoners. Article after article blasted the company, or raised ethical issues that I hadn’t previously considered, and I felt sickened with my enthusiasm for all things medical.

Most people are familiar with medicine’s graverobbing past, Resurrectionists would stalk the graveyards to relieve coffins of their occupants and sell them to medical schools. Fewer people are aware that an allotted number of executed criminals were given to medical schools each year by the Parliament. This may sound purely pragmatic as academics were desperate for cadavers for students to examine, and further study of anatomy would undoubtedly lead to new discovery and developments, but there was an unsavoury punitive element to the policy. The Murder Act 1751 drips with contempt when it says, ‘in no case whatsoever the body of any murderer shall be suffered to be buried; unless after such body have been dissected and anatomized.’ In a time when it was widely believed a body must remain intact to be resurrected on Judgement Day, the act took retributive justice an extra step by robbing the criminal of their chance at eternal life. It was also an act of humiliation designed as a deterrent to would-be criminals. In 1829, Burke (of Burke and Hare infamy) was hanged and publicly dissected. This was a poetic punishment for a man who killed innocent people to sell their bodies to anatomists. His skeleton resides at the Anatomical Museum of the Edinburgh Medical School and a book said to be made from his skin is on display at the Surgeon’s Hall.

The fear of being robbed from one’s grave led to the installation of watchtowers and mortsafes in graveyards, but for those who lived with a disability or visible illness the fear of being anatomized was more than just the era’s zeitgeist but a real threat. Alexis St. Martin, an American, developed a fistula after being shot in the abdomen as a teenager. For a decade of his life, he was experimented on by ‘Father of gastric physiology’ William Beaumont, who observed the effects of digestion by inserting pieces of food tied on to silk string into the fistula and removing it after different time intervals. When St. Martin died, his family were so concerned his body would be stolen for experimentation that they left St. Martin’s corpse out in the sun for days before burial to encourage decomposition.

Charles Byrne, whose skeleton resides at the Hunterian, also went to great lengths to attempt to avoid his fate. Byrne had acromegaly, a hormonal disorder caused by the pituitary gland producing too much growth hormone. His large size gave him the moniker of “The Irish Giant” and he made his living from being a human attraction. When his family attempted to bury him at sea in accordance with his wishes, Hunter bribed an undertaker in Margate to swap the body for weights. His family went ahead with the sea burial believing Byrne to still be in his lead coffin. In 2011, an article by Dr Len Doyle and Dr Thomas Muinzer about Byrne’s body was published in the British Medical Journal. The article weighs up the benefits of using Byrne’s body for research against the ethical issue of defying Byrne’s behest. Doyle and Muinzer draw parallels to the organ donation debate; those that die do not need their organs and organ donation, when given to a viable candidate, increases longevity and quality of life. However, to take organs against the donor’s wishes strips that person of their agency and their rights over their own body. The article also points out that even if Byrne’s body has a scientific value, that doesn’t mean his skeleton needs to be displayed as an exhibit. The article led to public pressure being applied on the Royal College of Surgeons to remove Byrne’s body. In 2017, the college stated that they had no plans to remove Byrne.

The question of whether it ethical or right to display these specimens is not easy to answer. The fact that Byrne was well known within his lifetime and made his wishes clear makes him a great cases study for examining the ethics of exhibiting human remains. However, a lot of human remains in museums have murky or anonymous providence and any opinion the person may have had on the topic is unknown. To deprive medical museums, which often are associated with Royal Colleges and medical schools, teaching aids on the idea that specimens might have objected seems extreme. Museums now make concerted efforts to treat human remains with the utmost care and consideration. There are strict legal and ethical guidelines that must be adhered to when dealing with human remains as detailed in “Guidance for the Care of Human Remains.” This guide, which can be found online, acknowledges how human remains have been used in the past and aims to provide a future for those remains which is culturally and religiously sensitive. There are even procedures in place for de-accessioning of remains and for returning remains to those who have a rightful claim to them.

I have made the conscious decision to be discerning about which exhibits I choose to see. I still enjoy medical museums and their public events, because I know those that host them have a deep respect for both their subject and the museum exhibits. I am not going to be a medical professional and so the knowledge I gain from these museums will never practically help anyone. However, these museums are important to the public in general. It is only recently that knowledge of the inner workings of the body has been accessible to the layman, and if I was bold I would argue this knowledge is still not accessible enough. With public health campaign after public health campaign encouraging people to take ownership of their own health, it’s clear there is a need for more in-depth education surrounding health, illness and our bodies. A little trip to a medical museum might be just what the doctor ordered.