9a, St Thomas’ Street, SE1 9RY
020 7188 2679
London Bridge LU/Rail
£5.90 (adults), £4.90 (concessions), £3.40 (under 16s), £13.80 (families)
Located in the garret of St Thomas’ Church, the Old Operating Theatre is perhaps London’s most atmospheric museum, as well as one of its most inaccessible. A rickety wooden spiral staircase leads up to the displays, a precipitous climb unsuitable for those with restricted mobility but well worth the effort for those who can make it.
The operating theatre – the oldest in the country – is the centrepiece of the museum and a grisly remnant of pre-anaesthetic and antiseptic surgery. Built in 1822 the theatre was part of the adjoining St Thomas’ Hospital but remained hidden for nearly 100 years when the hospital relocated to Lambeth, before being rediscovered in 1956. A semi-circular arena overlooked by raised tiers with leaning rails (from where medical students watched the bloody proceedings), it was not called a theatre for nothing – although the scarred wooden operating table looks better suited to the kitchen than the hospital. Nearby displays of surgical knives and saws, horsehair sutures and early anaesthetic equipment leave no doubt about the horrors of 19th-century surgery.
Festooned with dried herbs hanging from the wooden eaves, the adjacent Apocathary’s Garret is only marginally less gruesome. Pickled human specimens are also displayed here, along with some worryingly indelicate medical instruments like amputation kits and obstetrics tools with off-putting names like ‘blunt hook and crochet’ and ‘Smellie’s perforator’. Standing as it does on the site of the original St Thomas’ Hospital, the museum also has displays on medieval health care, and enterprising younger visitors can follow a ‘Plague Trail’ around the garret, choosing medicinal ingredients from the bowls of dried herbs liberally dotted around the garret. Contemporary artworks, scattered amongst the medicalia – created by the museum’s artist in residence – are an unexpected bonus. The imaginatively stocked shop contains an eclectic range of medical books as well as amusingly macabre knick-knacks like memento mori memo pads and rubber internal organs.
This is an extract from the latest edition of Museums and Galleries of London by Abigail Willis. Whether you are interested in firefighting or fine art, tennis or toys, the capital’s museums and galleries offer incredible choice for culture vultures – the only problem is knowing where to look…
This newly revised pocket guide provides all the information you’ll need, with comprehensive coverage of museums and galleries across the city as well as London’s vibrant commercial art scene, art fairs, degree shows, heritage venues, archives and libraries.
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