The permanent and official blog of the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies PhD student conferences and special events.

28 March 2011

Hop the Eleventh - Of Theatres and Carbolic Soap

Stephanie Bowry, Bodies of Memory: The Use of Architectural Space in Understanding Medical History at the Old Operating Theatre, Museum and Herb Garret, London

St Thomas' Church in Southwark, a small Baroque church, houses a secret hidden for almost a century. In 1956, the remains of what is possibly the oldest operating theatre and herb garret in the country was unearthed, reconstructed and opened as a museum in 1962. It is an eccentric space, a space with Built in 1821, it was shut up in 1862. Now a museum, it represents the astonishing survival of an emergency room which existed prior to the emergency of antiseptic and aseptic medicine. But why build it in a Church?

The Hospital of St Thomas had assisted the poorest members of the community as a charitable institution since the twelfth century. It's appropriation of a church space created a private space in which pain could be hidden. Architecture, and its space, can be interpreted in a number of ways - semiotics and phenomenology, for instance, shows how it has a huge storytelling potential. How is this sense of the power of architectural space coveyed in the museum?

In it's almost Soanian, tactile displays, archaic cabinets, it creates a feeling of time arrested, which make you want to linger. They are a stark contrast to the modern 'space age charnel house' of the Huntarian and Wellcome collections. Rather than these spaces, which display bodies and objects, the Old Operating Theatre evokes through absence, through lacunae, and it's task is not to create a narrative or follow an overall display 'strategy,' but to create a sense of place. Objects may be labelled, or not at all. Micro narratives, therefore, can operate in an almost encylopeadic manner. There is a small collection of human remains - they are displayed centrally, but respectfully, as objects of reverence. Traumatic instruments of obstetrics are displayed in darkness, and they would have been as disturbing to their original perceivers and users as they are to us today. This situated knowledge, then comes from a multitude of paths.

The positioning of the museum is also crucial, and in Bachelardian terms its hidden, attic location emphasises its fragility and ephemerality. When the museum was temporarily moved to the crypt in 2006, the meaning of the space changed significantly. In the operating theatre itself, a great contrast is drawn between its restored starkness and the object heavy character of the Herb Garret. But human traces can be found - sometimes within the fabric of the building itself. The blood which seeped from the operations into the floor insulation, and the marks of human teeth the the physician's stick...all these speak of a life now lost. And the space is also used today, for theatrical performances and contemporary art are able to give it a life, albeit one somewhat different from that which it originally had. Sometimes, as Eric Fong's installation showed in 2001, these can create interpretation through absence.

The real skill of this museum lies in its ability of the objects to speak to the senses themselves, an ideosyncratic display which speaks to memory and embodiment? What is the old operating theatre - a skeleton in the closet, a psychological attic...but it is also so much more. Spaces are powerful - they can create worlds for us, worlds which are present, worlds which are present only as trace, worlds not present at all. The Old Operating Theatre is ambiguous - a physical artefact which speaks to us of the past, in its very presentness, evoking through a strange kind of physicality, things which are not there.

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