Installation artist Claire Barclay delves into history at the Old Operating Theatre

By Mark Sheerin | 25 May 2012
a photo of a woman standing in the Old Operating Theatre
© Photo Ulenka Kozakowska

Mark Sheerin reports from The Old Operating Theatre where, as part of Culture24's Museums at Night weekend, artist claire Barclay delved into a grisly surgical hsitory. 

Claire Barclay is now one of the only women to have ‘operated’ at the Old Operating Theatre in Southwark, London. Between 1822 and 1862, the only females to make centre stage appearances here would have been patients from the nearby women’s ward.

These poor sick folk would find themselves pinned to a wooden recliner by four male orderlies as a crowd of male medical students peered down from the stalls on either side. The surgeons, also men, would then set about anaesthetic free procedures that would make your eyes water.

Tonight the theatre is packed out with curious Londoners drawn by the opportunity, provided by Culture24’s Museums at Night and , to see the operating theatre through the eyes of a leading contemporary artist. Yet this evening Barclay takes the opportunity to talk rather than sculpt.

The Glaswegian is “struck by the sense of living history” at this wondrous but little known museum. She reveals her working methods to find “atmosphere, spatial relationships and materials” to trigger emotional and psychological responses.

In due course she introduces a series of implements which trigger a second hand trauma. Audience members recoil when she passes round a hip grinder. We wince when she pulls out a tool for prising out gallstones from the bladder. It is clear why a sculptor should be drawn to this.

But Barclay’s interest goes beyond the pain factor. She points out that although the best surgeons in the land would have worked at this facility, there was a sense in which they trained themselves at the expense of the local poor to hone their skills on behalf of the London rich.

Sadly mortality rates were high, but another surprise of the evening was to hear that most deaths were post-operative. Surgeons were the unwitting agents of contamination as they wore stained and bloody smocks in an act of misplaced bravura and drama.

Civil unrest, the famine in Ireland and the Napoleonic Wars also contributed to the social backdrop for the bloody daily drama within these four walls. Barclay approached this talk with the perspective of a historian just as much as that of an artist.

It is, after all, history which activates the otherwise formal qualities of her chosen props. She did say once or twice that ambiguity was what drew her to the museum’s collection. But once you learn what a 19 century medical instrument is for, there is very little hope to forget.

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