Surgery by gaslight at the Old Operating Theatre: Culture24 on the road for Museums at Night 2009

By Rachel Hayward in London | 16 May 2009
a photo of two young women peering into a display case

26 year-old Beth and friend pore over the Herb Garret’s fascinating artefacts. Photo © Rachel Hayward / Culture24

Culture24 reporters have been hitting the road this weekend to report on Museums at Night events happening right across the UK. Here Rachel Hayward joins the 20-somethings relishing the opportunity to take in some grizzly goings on at the Old Operating Theatre.

'A Victorian Surgical demonstration by gas light on the hour every hour until doors close. The amputation kit awaits … will you survive?' So promised the poster advertising the Old Operating Theatre Museum’s gruesome contribution to the Museums at Night weekend.

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24 year-old Siobhan has a go on the operating table. © Rachel Hayward / Culture24

With some trepidation I climbed the rickety spiral staircase leading up to the Herb Garret, used from 1703 by St Thomas’ Apothecary to cure and dry herbs in medicinal compounds.

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An assistant in the medical demonstration. © Rachel Hayward / Culture24

But I was not alone. Far from it. More than 70 interested visitors joined me, among them a large proportion of medical students, Goths and a distinctly young crowd that packed the attic above St Thomas’s Church, near London Bridge, part of the old St Thomas’s Hospital.

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Checking out the operating theatre and its gruesome artefacts. © Rachel Hayward / Culture24

After exploring the Garret with its fascinating collection of surgical objects, knives, saws, leech jars, pharmaceutical bottles and herbal ingredients, we were invited into the adjacent Old Operating Theatre. Built in 1822, this atmospheric room is the oldest surviving operating theatre in Europe.

a photo of a man looking at a glass case with a medical demonstration dummy in it

Up in the herb garret. © Rachel Hayward / Culture24

Education Officer Stevie Edge held the audience enthralled as she laid bare the macabre history of the theatre, explaining how amputations were carried out in a speedy 27 seconds flat with rapier-like surgical instruments! It was spine-tingling stuff told as night fell and rain drummed incessantly on the glass roof above us.

Amazingly, the Theatre remained hidden for nearly a century after its closure in 1862 before being rediscovered in 1956. Just don’t leave it too long before you make a visit.

Feedback - how was it for you?

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Tom, 26: "One of my friends sent me the link. At the weekend museums can be over-run by kids and tourists, so a night like this is great … I like the spooky, macabre aspect of it and the fact that surgery was performed here."

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Ruth, 21: "Being able to be here at night, you’re a little bit less involved in the city. It’s quieter without the traffic noise you get in London during the day… it’s easier to believe you’re actually back in time."

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Steve, 29: "I came here because of a morbid fascination! You just can’t comprehend it. This is actually where they did it. I’m a web designer and I think Museums at Night is really great because I can come here after work."

Over 150 museums and galleries across the UK took part in Museums at Night 2009, which ran from May 15 - May 17. We hope next year's event will be even bigger and better, so watch out for news of Museums at Night 2010 on Culture24!

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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Festival of Museums