gaslit girls and wayward women

Amazing Anatomy: The Human Body as Spectacular Object

Medicine bottles on display at The Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garrett

Medicine bottles on display at The Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garrett

Hidden away at the top of a narrow staircase is one of my favourite museums in London.  It’s not much more than two rooms and a well-stocked gift shop, but The Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret is packed to the rafters with medical ephemara from apothecaries’ herbs to a Victorian speculum that made me cross my legs and swear never to complain about a smear test ever again. Last night it played host to the Congress of Curious People‘s terrific event, Amazing Anatomy: The Human Body as Spectacular Object, curated by Joanna Ebenstein of the wonderful Morbid Anatomy, and featuring a drawing salon from Art Macabre and two excellent lectures on historical representations of the human body. Although the room was stifling and packed with curious minds (I envied the model who was both posed next to the fan and not wearing a cardigan, or indeed, anything at all), it was an incredible evening. And if we thought it was bad, imagine being in there sans air conditioning and with a corpse on the operating table, slowly starting to stink…

When it comes to drawing, I’m strictly a stick-figure girl, but when I did a reading at their Angela Carter-themed collaboration with For Books’ Sake earlier in the year, I was inspired to give it a go and was surprised at how much fun I had. Having been on the other side of the process as a life model the detail that goes into their tableaux, from props to poses, is incredible, and I’m quite tempted to offer my services as a model in the future. In keeping with the medical setting, our model was painted as an anatomical Venus, a nude figure with the skin and muscle of the abdomen stripped away to reveal the internal organs. I’ve always thought they were incredibly beautiful, and although my renderings were about as far from being accurate as possible, it was enormous fun to draw and a great prelude for some really exciting talks.

Anatomical Venus on display at La Specola

Anatomical Venus on display at La Specola

Anna Maerker,  Senior Lecturer in the History of Medicine at King’s College London, spoke about the lifesize wax anatomical models at La Specola in Florence accompanied by slides of some of the most incredibly life-like figures I’ve ever seen. In particular, one anatomical Venus was shown with her intentines spilling out in a lacy pattern, covering her private parts for the sake of modesty. The intersection of art, anatomy, science and politics was fascinating to learn about. Dr Maerker described them as the Hadron Collider of their day, and the work only ground to a halt when the French Revolution refocused the attention of the patron Grandduke Pietro Leopoldo towards his sister, Marie Antoinette.

Following Dr John Troyer‘s talk, ‘Spectacular Human Corpses: Looking at Death, Seeing Dead Bodies’, I now know more than I ever expected to about embalming. The son of a funeral director, Troyer is part of the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath, and he spoke about how scientific ways of preserving the body after death, whether literally, through embalming, or through art, has been used as spectacle from Victorian death portraits, where recently-deceased family members were put in life-like poses and photographed with their mourning family, to the anthropmorphosising of animals through taxidermy.

Although the novel I’m currently writing is set in Scotland in the latter part of the 19th Century, it opens with a sceneOld-op-theatre-london surprisingly like last night – a small operating theatre, crammed full of people there to learn. Perched on the steps and looking down at the display, I got a vivid sense of what it must have been like to be Sarah, my main character – thankfully minus the corset and misogyny but in the same space, with the same fascination for what lies beneath the surface of the human body.


One response

  1. Pingback: The Congress for Curious People so far | The Congress for Curious People

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