The relaunch of an extraordinary collection of human and animal specimens gathered in the 18th century by a medical pioneer has prompted the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) to commission research into complex questions about provenance and consent.
The collection amassed by the surgeon-anatomist John Hunter includes human organs alongside the bodies and body parts of creatures ranging from bees to elephants. Human foetuses in glass jars, from nine weeks gestation to full term, pickled penises and female reproductive organs are preserved in carefully labelled glass jars.
After a six-year closure, the Hunterian Museum at the RCS headquarters in London reopens next week. In autumn, the RCS will launch a programme of research “to explore issues around the display of human remains and the acquisition of specimens during British colonial expansion”.
Many of the non-human specimens in Hunter’s celebrated collection were gathered all over the world by the surgeon-anatomist’s contacts in the military and among those termed “explorers”.
The introduction to the museum acknowledges that the specimens were “gathered before modern standards of consent were established. We recognise the debt owed to those people.”
Dawn Kemp, director of museums and special collections at the RCS, said the organisation would invite people “in these countries where this [material] has come from to respond [regarding] the consequences of the great natural history collections that came out of the 18th century”.
Hunter and his brother, William, were pioneers in the science of dissection, making important discoveries about human anatomy, teaching students through hands-on practice and employing artists to record their work. Their supply of bodies came from a close relationship with grave-robbers, known as Resurrection Men, who were paid high prices for fresh bodies.
The 7ft 7in skeleton of Charles Byrne, known as the Irish Giant, and the best-known human anatomical specimen in Hunter’s collection, has been removed from the new display. After Byrne died in 1783, Hunter reportedly paid the man’s friends £500 to hand over his body despite his wish to be buried at sea.
In a statement earlier this year, the board of trustees of the Hunterian Museum said that in the 18th and 19th centuries specimens were acquired “in ways we would not consider ethical today”. Byrne’s skeleton would not be displayed in the new museum but would be “retained as it is an integral part” of the collection, they added.
Hunter’s collection was bought by the government in 1799, but 75% of it was lost when the building was bombed in the second world war. More than 2,000 items out of a total of 3,500 that survived will be on display.
Kemp said: “The Hunterian Museum has been a place where history has been made, both for good and bad. The place where dinosaurs were named; where Charles Darwin came for advice on the fossils he found half the world away; where the pioneer of computing, Charles Babbage, sent his brain to be put on display.”
He added: “It is also where some of those closely involved in the western ‘colonial project’ developed sinister and awful ideas on racial theory. Its history makes it a unique place to contemplate what it is to be human.”