Anatomy – A matter of Death and Life

Last night I was fortunate enough to be invited along to the preview for a new exhibit at the National Museum of Scotland. This long awaited display looks at the history of anatomy teaching and dissection in Edinburgh bringing it all the way up to modern times and the need for continued body donation.

It had the potential to dwell on the gory history of Edinburgh and the body trade and yet it didn’t.

Starting with Leonardo Da Vinci – as so much seems to – the exhibitions took us through developments in Leiden and Padua with an actual copy of Versalius’ Fabrica – the first real anatomy book.

How many anatomists aren’t aware of the drawings with Clara the Rhino, and yet to see the actual picture and appreciate the size of it was amazing. Also to see the sketch on the page opposite where the arms appear to be a reasonable length as opposed to the picture with Clara where they seem very long.

There were so many images that I had seen before but had never seen the real thing and appreciated the real size. The classic picture of Hunter teaching anatomy with the model in front of the class with his arm up by Johann Zoffany, I don’t know how many times I have seen that image but to see it close up was amazing. We spent some time looking at that picture as the skeleton on the right hand side seems to have too many ribs – maybe it was a trick of the light.

The picture of Munro lit properly and behind its protective panel looked so much more impressive than where I normally see it hanging outside the staff canteen where I could walk up and actually touch it.

It was a truly cross disciplinary exhibition. Yes there were lots of anatomy pictures, a few models concentrating on the artistic aspects, but there was also a collection of costumes – robes worn by judges in the 1800s, the uniform of the town guard, there were leech pots and charms, collections of silverware belonging to clubs, complete wall sections covered with old images of Edinburgh and a mort safe (hats off to the team who installed that on the first floor).

The west port murders had to be covered – they are such an iconic part of the history but they were covered in a very unsensational way – the facts of the case, a large screen short film. It left you to ponder on what Burke and Hare were doing; killing people for medical teaching, and in a way that allows the horror of the story to sink in far better than any sensational images.

The skeleton of Burke had moved across from our museum to feature in the display but it was installed in a corner of the room, no more attention directed to it than to any other item and it completed the story and allowed you to move on.

The modern section was very well done. Three talking heads – the current Professor of Anatomy – Tom Gillingwater, a lady whose husband had donated and who was herself on the register and a 4th year medical student. They all explained the importance of dissection for education and the process of donating. The holding film between the presentation was of the names being written into the book of remembrance by the calligrapher. I wasn’t ready to see my mother in laws name been written across the screen, she donated in 2019, but I am so pleased that her donation featured in this exhibition.

The final piece was the open book of remembrance, her name again on display with all the other donors from 2019 onwards. I think she would be amused at being featured in a display at the national museum, she used to take my husband there as a child – mainly to play with the fish in the large pond in the entrance hall, but I am sure she would be honoured to be part of an exhibition that deals with anatomy and the journey of body supply in such a sensitive and informative manner.

If you can make it to see this exhibition then I would suggest you do.

Author: Anatomy Fundamentals

Janet Philp has spent a lifetime exploring fitness and wellbeing. Starting in group exercise, travelling through rugby to representing the UK at martial arts before including Yoga, meditation, Budokon and personal instruction. Her passion is anatomical function and educating people to use their bodies to their full potential.

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