A Compelling (and Gruesome) Story of Medicine
Thackray Museum (Leeds)
Member Name: CarolineR-D
Thackray Museum (Leeds)
Advantages: Well-presented, informative, very interesting
Disadvantages: Not for the squeamish, not suitable for the very young
The museum traces the history of medicine from the Victorian era to the present day. As someone who has always been fascinated by all things medical and with a passion for Victorian history, it seemed like the ideal place for me. According to the website, you should allow 2 to 3 hours to look around this museum, but I must stress that this is not nearly long enough. The information contained in the museum is very detailed and if you are as enthusiastic as I was, it would make more sense to give yourself a full day, allowing for a leisurely lunch in the very pleasant canteen.
We paid £22 for a family ticket (2 adults and up to 3 children) and this entitles us to return again as many times as we wish over the next 12 months. I am fairly confident that we will return as we all enjoyed our visit very much and with so much in-depth information being presented, it is inevitable that you won't take it all in on a single visit.
The museum begins by transporting you back in time to 1842 Leeds and inviting you to walk down a typical Victorian street. I am always a bit dubious about exhibits that use wax models as the scenes can look a bit false, but I felt that the atmosphere of squalor and poverty was conveyed extremely well here. I half expected Jack the Ripper to jump out of the shadows as I investigated the darkened alleyways. Not only were the sights of the 1842 street brought to life - the houses, shops, slaughterhouse yard, 'The Black Dog' tavern, etc. but the smells were just as I would expect them to be too. In fact, after a short while the smells became quite unbearable and we needed to get out of there. I'm not quite sure how they created such a realistic stench, but it certainly conjured up the appalling living conditions that existed for many in the Victorian era, where sewage overflowed from privies and trickled down drains into rivers.
Before entering the Victorian street, you are invited to pick up a card. Each card contains the details of a particular character. The card tells you the name and age of your chosen character and a little about where they live and work and the particular health risks they face. As you explore the 1842 street you can spot your character and see for yourself the conditions they had to live in. Your card also explains what illness your character has. For example, my character was an 11 year old servant boy who had caught diphtheria after drinking a cup of infected milk. You are encouraged to find a remedy for your particular character. This means considering the various options that are open to you - i.e. whether to go to a doctor or to a chemist & druggist store, and to take into account what your character can afford.
The task of having to find a remedy for your 'patient' was not only fun but a great way of making the museum's information more meaningful. We have probably all read some of the appalling statistics about mortality rates amongst the poor in Victorian times, but by focussing on an individual character's story, you are able to relate to the human tragedies behind the statistics. This struck me as a great activity for children (older children who are quite good readers) as I do believe that if they feel emotionally connected to the subject matter, they are much more likely to learn.
In searching for a remedy, lots of problem-solving tasks come into play. Children have to weigh up different considerations. For example, should they go to a doctor or would it be cheaper to go to the druggist and purchase an over-the counter remedy? What about a quack remedy? What are the chances of success of a particular remedy and can their character afford it? They have to get to grips with old money. For instance, my character only had a shilling to spend and a visit to the herbalist revealed that the recommended herbal remedy would cost 3d a dose.
We all chatted quite animatedly, sharing information with each other as we researched remedies on behalf of our particular characters. It was a wonderful way to find out what it meant to be a patient in Victorian times. It was also quite amusing at times. If your patient can't afford to buy a remedy, there are always home remedies as a last resort. Some of these were quite extraordinary, such as a suggestion that applying cold boiled turnips to the feet can cure smallpox, or that sitting over chamomile flowers soaked in milk was a cure for diarrhoea. (Here we discovered a waxwork squatting over a chamber pot, leaving little to the imagination.) The frankness of some of the wax models really made me laugh. I am sure the very realistic cowpat poultice would appeal to most children!
I absolutely loved looking round the chemist & druggist shop. The pharmacy equipment on display and the shelves full of old-fashioned medicines with wonderful names like, 'Mrs Winslow's Soothing Syrup' and vintage posters advertising these dubious cures made it very atmospheric.
After you have decided on a treatment, you can find out whether your patient recovered or not. It was quite sobering to realise just how common deaths from such diseases as typhoid, cholera, diphtheria and smallpox were at this time. With this in mind, we ventured into the next section of the museum to find out how improvements in living conditions and scientific progress would gradually transform the course of medicine.
It was interesting to learn just how ignorant the early Victorians were about the way diseases were spread. Through a detailed explanation of the findings of Louis Pasteur, Robert Koch, John Snow, Edward Jenner, Alexander Fleming and many other influential scientists, we began to understand how progress was made. I felt that the museum offered a good balance between reading and interactive learning, although sometimes the information was not presented as clearly as it could have been. For example, we looked at organisms under a microscope to illustrate Pasteur's germ theory, but we couldn't see very clearly. At least the museum acknowledged the problem and provided a blown-up selection of slides so that we knew what you were supposed to be looking at.
Much of the information is provided in the form of a question, to which the answer is revealed by lifting up a flap. This encourages you to think for yourself and discuss with others what you think the correct answer will be.
Some of the content of this museum is definitely not for the squeamish and some exhibits carry warnings, complete with signs telling you where to go if you want to bypass a particularly gory bit and move onto something else. This is obviously an important consideration if you are taking children. Having said that, many children love gory detail (I certainly did when I was a child) and there is nothing gratuitous here. When something gruesome is shown, it is because that is what it would have been like. You can watch a rather chilling, 3-minute film about a young girl whose leg needs to be amputated after an accident in the mill. You can also observe tourniquets, sharp knives, saws and bone-cutting forceps in the display cabinets up close, which is certainly not for the faint-hearted.
I picked up some fascinating bits of medical trivia. I was moved to read of a woman called Jane Crawford who underwent an operation in 1809 to remove an ovarian tumour. It was a 25-minute operation with no general anaesthetic and she got through the ordeal by repeating the psalms. Surgery in the days before anaesthetics must've been a nightmare. Speed was of the essence because there was only a limited amount of time that a screaming, writhing patient could be held down. I learned about a surgeon called Robert Liston who was so speedy in amputating a patient's leg that he accidentally removed the testicles too! These are just two of the museum's many anecdotes to stay in my mind.
You can find out how to scrub up for an operation, you can study X-rays and try to make a diagnosis from them and you can even find out how to make a wrist splint or hip joint. Every aspect of medicine you can think of seems to be explored here and you will certainly come out of there feeling incredibly grateful for the NHS!
There is also a section of the museum called Having a Baby which covers all aspects of childbirth through the ages, contrasting what it would have been like in 1890 to the present day. There are a lot of personal accounts, which makes the information more meaningful and again puts the focus on the human beings behind the statistics. You can even try on an empathy belly if you want!
A section called Life Zone is more suited to younger children and includes lots of colourful, interactive exhibits to show how your body functions, including how your muscles work, your senses, how you move, and you can follow a pea on its journey through the digestive system to find out what happens stage-by-stage.
We ate our lunch in the museum's Café Camuco, which was very impressive. The décor of this café was very much in keeping with the rest of the museum. The walls were lined with medicine cabinets full of potion bottles, so it looked like an old-fashioned apothecary shop. The oak tables and chairs were attractive too. The menu was quite extensive, ranging from salads and sandwiches for around £2.90 to fresh soup and bread for £3.50 and filled jacket potatoes and paninis from about £3.75. I noticed that there was a special under-fives menu and also a breakfast menu served between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. I enjoyed a lovely cup of fresh filter coffee for £1.50. It was the sort of place I would have been happy to go to for lunch or a drink even if I wasn't going to the museum.
There is a well-stocked gift shop, selling a variety of vintage and medical-themed gifts, many of which were very reasonably priced and would make good pocket-money souvenirs. From miniature squeezy brains and fake eyeballs which glowed, to therapeutic bath salts, books and sweets, there really was something for everyone.
Throughout the museum is clean and very well-presented. The staff are helpful and welcoming.
I would recommend the Thackray Museum without a doubt for adults and children from the age of about 11. Apart from the Life Zone museum, I don't think there is much for younger children, mainly because you need to be fairly fluent at reading to get the most out of the exhibits. Whilst there are some interactive exhibits, the information is mainly presented in written form. Children who are doing project work at school about the Victorians, would find a visit to this museum a very worthwhile experience. If your child is a fan of the Horrible Histories series, this would no doubt appeal to them too. History doesn't get much more horrible than this!
The museum is on two floors, but there is a lift and I understand that wheelchairs can be booked in advance if required. I was pleased that there were benches throughout, so you could sit down and rest your aching legs, as there is quite a lot of walking involved.
We all felt it was one of the most interesting museums we have ever visited and I honestly can't wait to go back.
Summary: A fascinating museum