Museum Review: The Old Operating Theatre

Old Operating Theatre

My visit to the Langdon Down museum this summer set me thinking about some of the lesser-known museums in the capital. In recent years, with the outpouring of blogs and social media channels, there seems to have been a concerted effort to plug some of the less-familiar cultural hotspots, particularly as the obvious attractions become ever-more crowded.  The Old Operating Theatre – only a stone’s throw from London Bridge – is one museum which appears to have flourished in this climate.

It’s no surprise that it’s quickly become acknowledged as one of London’s most exciting (and unusual) visitor attractions, for the museum houses the only surviving nineteenth-century operating theatre, tucked away in the roof of a Baroque church.

The operating theatre – thought to be Europe’s oldest in existence – was part of St Thomas’s Hospital. Old St Thomas’s was founded circa the thirteen century (perhaps earlier, given it was already described as ancient in 1215) in Southwark, near London Bridge. The hospital has had a rich history through the centuries – it was on these grounds that the first complete translation of the Bible into English was made, and it is also well -known as the site of Florence Nightingale’s famous nursing school. The hospital (which was joined by nearby Guy’s in 1726) remained on its Southwark site from its Medieval origins until 1862, when it relocated to Lambeth. Although the hospital was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1540 and maligned as a ‘bawdy’ house, it only briefly closed, and reopened some twelve years later. It is possibly the oldest hospital in London, though St Bartholomew’s is often considered a more likely contender for the title.

The hospital’s herb garret dates to the early 1700s, when St Thomas’s Church was rebuilt. The garret was in the roof space of this church, and was used by the hospital’s apothecary to store and use herbs. Herbs were often kept in attic stores rather than basements, because it was assumed they were less vulnerable to rats. The garret’s large oak beams also made it less susceptible to humidity, and it proved a perfect place for drying herbs.

In the early 1820s, part of the herb garret was transformed into a purpose-built operating theatre, providing space for apprentices to observe surgical operations. The theatre’s seemingly odd location derives from the fact that St Thomas’s female surgical ward adjoined the garret. Following the theatre’s construction, female patients were no longer operated on on the ward itself.

Today’s museum celebrates the history of both the operating theatre and the herb garret, with exhibits of nineteenth-century surgical instruments and the history of herbal medicine sitting side-by-side. Victorianists in particular will find rich pickings: there’s a chance to see a prosthetic wooden leg from the 1890s, a range of forceps used in early obstetrics, early anaesthetic masks, and pill boxes for ‘household’ medicines (or quack cures, in some cases).

These magnificent displays are set out almost like nineteenth-century cabinets of curiosities. This is not a ‘modern’ museum with shiny white text panels, eagle-eyed attendants and fluorescent lighting. In fact, visiting the museum is a bit like stepping into the shoes of a nineteenth-century surgeon; discovery is aided by close examination and observation, and education is something of an adventure. Visitors move from peering into glass cabinets to poring over laminated fact sheets and hand-written information cards. The museum rewards the most keenly observant. Over an hour and a half I managed to find some real gems almost hidden among the museum’s artefacts. I picked up one laminated card and read all about James Miranda Barry, the woman who masqueraded as a man to enter a career in surgery, while another taught me about the history of specialist children’s hospitals, the need for which was not recognised until the 1850s.Elsewhere I read about early- to mid-twentieth century pregnancy tests, which saw women’s urine injected into frogs (the reading was positive if the frog produced eggs within the next 24 hours).

The exhibits gesture towards medicine throughout the ages; while the focus is largely on the nineteenth century, there are twentieth-century contraceptives on display and a potted history of the medicinal use of herbs, dating back to Classical and Medieval times.

The collection is endlessly fascinating, but the real gem is of course the operating theatre itself.  The room illustrates just how theatrical the operations must have been; tiered observation stands are arranged in a horseshoe around the small operating table, and the surgeon’s frock coats or ‘costume’ are waiting in the wings. Students would have crowded in to see operations being performed.

While undeniably atmospheric, the theatre is now clean and bright, and it is difficult to imagine the clamour of spectators and the bloody procedures which took place. If the dissections on BBC’s Ripper Street seem gruesome then it might be difficult to stomach imagining the surgery which must have taken place here – before the advent of either reliable anaesthetics or antiseptics. Built in the early 1820s, the theatre pre-dates anaesthetics by more than twenty years, and it had closed down before antiseptic surgery was even brought in. Given the difficulty of operating under these conditions, the cases that were seen were often restricted, more likely to be amputations than internal operations.

Both the operating theatre and herb garret are poised somewhere between visitor attraction and esoteric gem. There are some education facilities and a small shop (with a delightful hotchpotch of books  on the history of medicine), but definitely no tearoom and no toilets. Accessible via a precarious spiral staircase, the impression of the museum is as though an unsuspecting visitor has just happened upon something marvellous. This impression of course bears some resemblance to the re-discovery of the operating theatre in 1956 (it was blocked off and forgotten for almost a century).

The unique location of the museum is a wonderful curb on over-commercialism but it leaves the place difficult to access for any whose mobility is restricted. For those unable to reach the museum, a virtual tour can be accessed via the website and much of the collection can now be viewed online.

These digitisation projects reflect the way in which the museum has flourished and modernised in recent years. In 1988 it saw only 4,500 visitors a year – now the figure is closer to 34,000. There’s of course the ubiquitous Twitter account and Facebook page to spread the word about the museum, and an amazing calendar of unique events. As well as weekly weekend demonstrations of nineteenth century surgery and tutorials on the use of herbal medicines, there are some wonderfully esoteric one-off events.

It was with great disappointment that I discovered all the Hallowe’en-themed events had already sold out, particularly the lecture on ‘Surgical Horrors: The Operating Body in Horror Films and Literature’. Still, I’m somewhat placated by the promise of events to come: in November and December, for instance, the museum plays host to Mike Coffey, ‘the London Magician’, in an event which seems to be shrouded in considerable secrecy!

The museum’s ambience lends itself to these sorts of events, in much the same way that Barts Pathology has carved a niche for itself with wonderfully macabre events. If the Guildhall Art Gallery’s recent Victoriana late view is anything to go by – with its ‘death drawing’ salon and extravagantly costumed comperes – then macabre may well be hitting the mainstream.  More visitors should give the Old Operating Theatre the funding boost it needs (and deserves) to implement its ambitious development plan, but I for one hope it manages to achieve commercial success without detracting from its wonderfully unique atmosphere and clandestine feel.

Visiting the museum

The museum is open every day from 10.30am to 5pm. It closed for Christmas between 15th December – 5th January.

Full-price admission is £6.20. Concessions get in for £5, and children under 16 for £3.50. The museum is now a National Trust partner, so members receive a 50% discount.


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