Bones Abroad: London

I love London. It holds a special place in my heart because I have family here and I spent a lot of my childhood visiting sites around here. It was also the first place where I ever did independent research- my masters research was done using a museum collection of early modern human remains from the Museum of London. When I think about England, my thoughts first go to those hauntingly quiet and rundown castles dotted across the landscape, but the second thought is of London. It is easy to navigate, once you get used to the Tube- the London Underground Rail, and despite the high number of tourists it is able to maintain much of its historic identity. If you are looking to get a bioarchaeology fix, then London is a great location.

Hiding Face of a Pre-Dynastic Mummy at the British Museum, via Flickr user Ian

Hiding Face of a Pre-Dynastic Mummy at the British Museum, via Flickr user Ian

British Museum: If you’re going to London for the first time, this is probably top on your list. But given its immense size and diversity of artifacts, it can be hard to see everything. Currently, the museum has an amazing exhibit on Pompeii and Herculeneum, that features artifacts and reconstructions of what life was like and plaster casts of the deceased who were unable to flee before the eruption. My personal favorite exhibit is the Sutton Hoo ship burial, an Anglo-Saxon burial site. The burial was surrounded by a wealth of gold coins, silver vessels, clothes, weapons and armor. The artifacts are in amazing condition, and clearly show the importance of the individual buried within. It’s also a great exhibit because they share the story of the archaeological excavation, something I am very interested in. Don’t forget to visit the death mask of Oliver Cromwell, the various mummies and amazing coffins!

Pathology Museums: There are three amazing museums in London that feature pathological specimens and anatomical anomalies. The first is Bart’s Pathology Museum, a suggestion I received from Twitter user @M.Sandholzer. This museum includes such items as a 19th century liver misshapen by the prolonged use of a corset, skulls of executed criminals, and hosts a number of taxidermy classes throughout the year. You can follow along with exhibits, events and new specimens on their blog. Second, and a personal favorite of mine, is the Hunterian Museum which has such exhibits as the extinct species room, skeletal remains with amazing advanced stages of diseases like leprosy or rickets, and fantastic (thought slightly disturbing) examples of the effect of diseases on human bone and flesh. Finally, there is the Wellcome Museum which specializes in the display of anatomical specimens with specific reference to surgery.

Angel Grave Cover from Highgate Cemetery, via Flickr user Alberto Garcia

Angel Grave Cover from Highgate Cemetery, via Flickr user Alberto Garcia

Highgate Cemetery: Highgate Cemetery has to be one of the most beautiful places in the world (that it, if you like me find cemeteries to be in general beautiful or at least intriguing places). It opened in 1839 and was a very fashionable place for burial of the upper class. Like many Victorian cemeteries, it was constructed to be a park, a place of beauty and peace where the living could wander the grounds and commune with their deceased loved ones. There are a number of theme areas such as Egyptian Avenue which features architecture and design reminiscent of its African namesake. Many portions have become overgrown, only adding to the beauty of the grave markers and memorials. You can also visit some famous dead like Karl Marx, George Eliot, Herbert Spencer, and numerous members of the Dickens family.

Jack the Ripper: London’s most famous murders are linked to Jack the Ripper, and his legacy still exists at many locations. The Ten Bells Pub is renowned for being the location where the final victim of Jack had her last drink on November 9th, 1888, and was found deceased the next morning across the street. Due to this association, the pub was renamed ‘Jack the Ripper’ for a number of decades, but now is back to its original name. Numerous hauntings are reported to have occurred there. Head over to Mitre Square and Hanbury Street for the locations of another two victims of the ripper. If you’re feeling really adventurous you can visit the graves of all his victims, found in various cemeteries in London. Less adventurous, you can take a ‘Jack the Ripper’ tour through London and let someone lead you!

Any other suggestions for visitors to London?

8 responses to “Bones Abroad: London

  1. The museums in South Kensington are all good, but I particularly like the Natural History Museum. If you’re visiting the Hunterian, it’s also worth popping over the road to Sir John Soames’ house. Not archaeological, although there is an egyptian sarcophagus, but distinctly quirky.

  2. I adore the Hunterian, but I personally think the Gordon Museum surpasses it. It is part of Guy’s Campus at King’s College London, and is normally only open to the “medical public” by appointment, but very occasionally they host alumni events (which is how I got to visit). It’s probably not a practical suggestion, since most people aren’t allowed in, but if anyone gets the chance to see it, they should take it! They, too, have a liver warped by corsetry, but also a collection of tumour paintings, lovely wax anatomical models, the body of Tutanalan, a forensics collection, and an excellent collection of jarred fetuses. In addition to this, the top two floors of the Science Museum are very much open to the public, and house some of the overflow of the Wellcome Collection (in my opinion, has more interesting objects than the ones that are actually at the Wellcome), and don’t forget the Old Operating Theatre, St. Bart’s Hospital Museum (different than the pathology museum), and the Royal London Hospital Museum, which has Joseph Merrick’s veiled hat, and a replica of his skeleton!

  3. I can’t wait until I can go on my first trip to England. This post gives me a few things to look for when I do get to finally go. 🙂

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