The Curator’s musings

ANDREW CONNELL, Collections Manager at the Surgeons’ Hall Museum in 2011, talks about the Collection’s modern function.


“It’s like inviting people in and showing them round your house and what’s on your shelves – there are different hands exploring the collection in different ways. It brings out endless possibilities, like a kaleidoscope.”
“The first collection, which was very basic, not very good, was held in places like Infirmary Street and High School Yards. Robert Knox [1791 -1862] was made responsible for increasing the collection and for its move to new premises. He bought up Charles Bell’s collection and brought it up from London. Much of it was stored in Infirmary Street and in various corridors and cellars. Knox was also in charge of presentation and the collection was opened to the public from that time. So why would you come to see it?
“There’s a nice piece in the Tansey & Mekie ‘History of the Museum‘:
‘Visitors of the lower classes, mechanics, sailors and soldiers have uniformly been quiet, careful and most orderly…visitors of the lower classes seem to take more interest in the specimens than those of the higher, many of whom, especially ladies, merely walk through the rooms without looking at the objects particularly.’
Probably they were embarrassed to show too much interest!”
“The original context of the collection – the organs and tissues – was objective.
It was for teaching, for learning anatomy, all of which was observation-based.
For more than 150 years this was its raison d’être.
The teaching role was more a fade-out process from the 1970s/80s – that was
the start of its serious demise. With the advent of desk-top viewers for slides
you had the ability to represent material in different ways. There were other
diagnostic tools such as X-rays. And in terms of fairness in exams – you can
use the same slide for everyone rather than trying to get several identical
specimens. A photo of, for example, a pulmonary embolism is more realistic,
in its fresh natural coloured state, than a greying specimen in a jar.”
 ” ‘Benign neglect‘. That’s what I like to call it. We’re very happy to be a figure-
head for benign neglect. At first the collection was loved and cared for and
funded for teaching purposes. But the College is very reactionary, very slow to
follow trends, and the collection became semi-obsolete for such a long time.
But now, instead of using it to look purely at anatomy and pathology, we can
use it to look at the history of medicine, to tell a consistent tale about medicine, the medical personalities and pioneers, and also the context of the social history.”
“If we think about the patients who formed the collection – what was their life
What misfortune led them here, with what stoicism?
We have to think about the things people put up with – and how they were affected.
We aim now to bring out the ‘patient-based’ context – the humanity, and
human stories.
This is where artists of all genres are important.”
“I started in the Chambers Street Natural History Museum, then I moved to
the University’s Department of Pathology collection. There was a certain
element of haphazardness – I liked working with my hands, and enjoyed fixing
things. Chambers Street was quite Dickensian, with the inventories still on
cards. At the University it was more hands-on, a very different collection – I
had workshop duties in anatomy and pathology, teaching duties such as
display sets for classes, and I repaired things.
Medical terminology? I made an effort, enough to get by on – but it was
‘shallow waters’. Don’t take my word for anything – you should demand a
second opinion!”
“When I was in Pathology, Dr Black once handed me a poly bag with a kidney
in it, still warm. He just said, ‘Can you deal with this?’ There was a bit of a
confrontation. ‘Am I supposed to?’
For me, the first issue was mortality – this was somebody’s organ, used until not long ago. Yes, the kidney was ‘dealt with’, but I then came away from that experience with some issues.
In the Museum, it isn’t red, it isn’t warm – and you start becoming aware of
your own feelings in relation to these aspects.”
“The society we live in, we’ve become desensitised to death, it’s all neatly
packaged in boxes. So you don’t know how somebody will react to a museum
specimen. When people come round, I’m very conscious of their response to
the collection. I try to think, what’s right, what’s wrong, about having that
specimen on show? But the responses are deeply personal, a gut reaction,
I might be overly protective, overly cautious, of how we present things to people.
For example, we had Siamese twins – they were on display in an educational
context, with X-rays that showed how their bones were joined. But then I used
to hear people coming in and saying, ‘Where’s the babies in jars?’ They were
missing the point, it was just voyeuristic, they were treating it like a Victorian

“I want to get people to look without feeling distressed about mortality: to start

a reflective process that’s speculative – and they can then allow themselves to
go in different directions. I want people to use the collection as a locus for opening up, and contextualising in the way of social history.
There’s an inter-connectedness between people – the surgeons, patients,
pathologists, the family – and they’re all colliding and ricocheting in all directions.
The collection here provides the impetus for you to look differently, and to re-focus your thoughts and ideas.”
© Andrew Connell and Ann Lingard
January 2011