From Dissections to Death Masks: The Anatomical Museum, The University of Edinburgh

Photograph by Hugh Pastoll via www.anatomy.mvm.ed.ac.uk

Photograph by Hugh Pastoll via www.anatomy.mvm.ed.ac.uk


Last weekend I was finally able to satisfy my curiosity of what lay behind the 19
th century doors of The University of Edinburgh’s School of Medicine and Anatomical Museum.

Located on Teviot Place, The Anatomical Museum at the University has not long been open to the public. Now welcoming visitors through its grand gates on the last Saturday of every month, it instantly absorbs you into its stony walls of history and heritage. The museum, which opened as part of the new Medical School in 1884, was founded by the renowned Monro dynasty; 3 generations of Alexander Monro’s whose teaching spanned 126 years occupying the Chair of Anatomy at the University, one after the other through the 18th and 19th century. The grand lobby looms over you with two enormous elephant skeletons from either side. As an eager anatomist, your eyes don’t know where to settle first; the enormous jaw bones of a whale, the huge replica of Rembrandt’s ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp’ or the many portraits and busts of famous anatomists from days gone by.

Dissection Theatre

Photograph by Hugh Pastoll via www.anatomy.mvm.ed.ac.uk

Photograph by Hugh Pastoll via www.anatomy.mvm.ed.ac.uk

As a former student of anatomy and as somebody who is fascinated by its teaching from days gone by, I was completely awestruck as I entered the dissection theatre which is still in use as a lecture theatre today. The beautiful rounded room is centred by a relatively small space that once was host to the magnificent spectical that medical students would flock to see; a human body. It’s tightly packed rows of seats are incredibly steep providing views of the cadaver to even those less-than-eager students in the back row. Sitting in one of the leather-like fold down chairs three quarters of the way to the back, I looked down upon the anatomical demonstration videos of Acland Anatomy that were projected onto the wall below. It was quite overwhelming to think that I was sitting in the very seats that would have looked upon the teaching of the famous Monro dynasty and the many cadavers that graced their dissection tables.

Death Masks

Photograph by Hugh Pastoll via www.anatomy.mvm.ed.ac.uk

Photograph by Hugh Pastoll via www.anatomy.mvm.ed.ac.uk

The museum has a fascinating collection of 40 life and death masks on display which eerily look out onto the museum and its curious visitors from the far wall that they occupy. Originally belonging to the Edinburgh Phrenological Society, the collection which is now owned by the William Ramsey Henderson Trust shows some well known faces from scientists and politicians to criminals and historical figures. To literally come face to face with pioneering Scottish anatomist and surgeon John Hunter and buyer of Burke and Hare’s bodies Robert Knox alongside notorious figures such as William Shakespeare and Julius Caesar is an experience that can only be personified by the true anatomical cast of the individual’s face.

Burke and Hare

Photograph by Hugh Pastoll via www.anatomy.mvm.ed.ac.uk

Photograph by Hugh Pastoll via www.anatomy.mvm.ed.ac.uk

The notorious Westport Murderers are well known historical characters in Edinburgh. Known across the world as the ruthless bodysnatchers who took the lives of at least 16 Edinburgh residents from 1827 to 1828 to capitalise from the high demand for cadavers in the the dissecting rooms of Edinburgh’s Medical School. Once their crimes were discovered and they were both detained, Hare was offered immunity from prosecution if he would confess and agree to testify against Burke. His testimony set him free and committed Burke to execution by hanging in Edinburgh on January 28, 1829. His body was dissected at The University of Edinburgh and his skeleton preserved, articulated and displayed. Now on view at the museum (minus the two phalanges from the 3rd toe on his right foot…), visitors can come face to face with this shady character from Edinburgh’s past, a vivid reminder of how far anatomy and its teaching have come since those dark days in the early 1800s.

To find out more about the Anatomical Museum, visit their website at www.anatomy.mvm.ed.ac.uk

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Dancing Skeletons: Characters of Cham Dance

Dancing Skeleton Facec.1919 Dancing Skeleton costume on display at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh

This bank holiday weekend brought a meandering stroll through the inspiring National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh. Located on Chamber Street, between South Bridge and the Grassmarket, the National Museum of Scotland is still one of my favourite places to visit after this 4th or 5th trip. There were some fascinating anatomy-related finds that I came across for the first time on Monday; one of which was the costume of the Dancing Skeleton. (Level 3, World Cultures, Performance And Lives)

Tibetan Cham Dance is a lively costumed dance associated with some sects of Buddhism, often performed at Buddhist festivals. With monks providing the accompanying music with traditional Tibetan instruments, the dances are considered a form of meditation and an offering to the gods.

Dancing Skeleton Fullc.1919 Dancing Skeleton costume on display at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh

One character from the Cham Dance is the Citipati, or ‘Dancing Skeleton’. Cheerfully dressed, their costumes are made from cotton and are decorated to show the bones of the skeleton in bright and illustrative way.  Their somewhat intimidating eye-less skull mask is fashioned from papier-mâché and sheet tin, showcasing a crested headdress of smaller skulls. Despite their daunting presence, their intention is not to frighten but to remind and inspire the audience of the transience of human life and the fleeting presence of the organic body.