My Favourite Specimen: Plastinated Sections

Plastinates in lightbox

Here at the Museums and Archives of the Royal College of Surgeons we have over 75,000 objects and 600 archive collections. Every specimen, every manuscript, has the capacity to tell a fascinating story about the history of surgery, health, science and/or the body. Some are centuries old, most famously the seventeenth-century anatomical preparations known as the Evelyn Tables and the remaining human and animal specimens of the surgeon-anatomist John Hunter (1728–93). Like other museums of human and comparative anatomy, the vast majority of the collections were acquired in the decades around 1900, the peak of natural history collecting, then ‘payday’ of Empire and the emergence of pathology as a discrete discipline, writ large in morbid collections. Unlike other medical museums, however, two-thirds of these were lost when the College was bombed in 1941.

The past decade has been an especially turbulent period for medical museums. The retained organs scandals that eventually gave rise to the Human Tissue Act 2004 prompted widespread disposals, while at Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds exhibitions and their ilk tens of millions of visitors have experienced preserved anatomical specimens first-hand. As one senior pathologist noted in 2009:

“The use of preserved anatomical specimens stopped – a lot of research stopped – while we worked out what would be socially and legally acceptable in due course. Paradoxically, we now have the controversial situation of Gunther von Hagens and his Body Worlds exhibition drawing the crowds, and having been to one of his exhibitions … what the people were interested in, they were glued to his disease process examples, which are actually the modern equivalents of the museum pots. So we have been obliged to stop using the very sort of material that the public was saying, ‘this is fascinating’.1

My favourite specimen – specimens, really – span the two apparently conflicting elements of this paradox.

The Hunterian Museum is only one of the museum resources available at the Royal College of Surgeons. We have research collections of Odontology (skulls and teeth) and surgical instruments, as well as a teaching collection, the Wellcome Museum of Anatomy and Pathology (its name a legacy of the generosity of the Wellcome Trust when the collection was re-housed). This is used for training surgeons and for post-graduate learning in allied fields, for which we cautiously but actively acquire new material: including a small number of preparations from the Institute for Plastination in Heidelberg (complete, of course, with all appropriate consent documentation). Among these are the objects that intrigue me more than anything else in our collections: a series of 2 mm sections of the head and torso of two plastinated bodies. Mounted by my colleagues simply but effectively on a lightbox, they look like the coloured scans with which we are so familiar: but these are human remains – albeit a hybrid of organic matter and preservative, as all prepared museum objects are. They comprise a stunning testament to the intricacy of the body, and of the brain. Surgeons learning their head and neck anatomy enthuse about them, and so do I.

These plastinates, a key element of surgical training yet indelibly connected to Body Worlds, remind me that for three hundred years anatomy museums have occupied the cultural terrain at the intersection of elite education and the fairground. But for me, this is not a paradox, but rather an opportunity to share with medical and other audiences alike the spectacle of the body. Medical museums are not static mausolea, but active, dynamic entities, with changing audiences and changing uses, and with our combination of historical and contemporary, our resources will be valuable for years to come.

The Hunterian Museum is open to the public, 10.00–17.00 Tuesday to Saturday; the Wellcome Museum of Anatomy and Pathology is open to those practising or training in healthcare and allied fields; contact the Royal College of Surgeons Museums and Archives for access.


1. Peter Furness, BBC Radio 4, 13 August 2009.

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These are human remains – albeit a hybrid of organic matter and preservative, as all prepared museum objects are.