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The Old Operating Theatre Museum, Southwark

Founded: 1962    Governance: Independent Trust        Scope: Medical history        Visited: Summer 2018

I pondered for a long while whether to include the Old Operating Theatre among my featured museums. It isnít a local museum really (though everywhere is local to somewhere!), but for sheer bizarre personality it is hard to match and so Ė rules are there to be broken.

It was July 2018, the hottest day of the year. My day trip to London had taken me on a long and picturesque walk from St Jamesís through Piccadilly and Covent Garden, to Lincolnís Inn and the Temple and finally across the river to Southwark. I reached the Old Operating Theatre in early afternoon and once through the door ascended the winding wooden staircase next to the swanky bar that now outrageously occupies the body of what was once the Church of St Thomas; for the Museum, you see, is crammed into the attic of that once-sacred edifice. It is an experience like no other. Would the stairs never end?

Arriving at the reception desk, I did my best not to pant visibly and took a glug from my water bottle before plunging into the corridor that led into the displays. Chaos, apparently, awaited. Bottles, uneasy antique medical equipment, fading yet still lurid manuals of surgery, herbs and powders in tubs and pots, lined every available surface in a sweltering wooden room Ė the Herb Garret. But the ordeal was not yet over. Up, up, and I emerged into the final sanctum, the Operating Theatre itself. Its great skylight, designed to direct light down onto the table, lensed the razing power of the sun this July day. The hottest room in London. A lecture in progress: I sat among the mainly young people and managed about five minutes before the furnace temperatures drove me out, and back to the Garret where the heat was merely appalling rather than impossible. How the lecturer managed I canít imagine.

The Garret was used by the apothecaries of St Thomasís Hospital adjoining to store medicines and herbs, and then in 1822 the Theatre was built in it to avoid female inmates having to watch fellow patients being operated on in the ward. Shut up in 1862 when the hospital left the building, it was not exactly forgotten, but not visited with any purpose again until 1956. Enough remained for the space to be restored, the only surviving 19th-century operating room in Europe.

We casually call them Ďtheatresí, but this one really is. Tiered seating for students surrounds the operating table, the seat of the drama of life and death. You are surprised that blood is not evident on the floor, so much must have hit it over those forty years, and this dreadful space does not lose its power, its witness, because of the students in their modern clothes around its benches.

After that, the alembics and the bottles and the twigs and the dried snakes back in the Garret come as a relief. There is even whimsy to be had here and there. Back down the wooden stairs, and onto the street, and itís not right to say youíve recovered: this is a museum visit you will take with you a long way.

Old Operating Theatre, Southwark
Old Operating Theatre Museum, Southwark
Old Operating Theatre Museum, Southwark
Old Operating Theatre Museum, Southwark
Old Operating Theatre Museum, Southwark
Old Operating Theatre Museum, Southwark
Old Operating Theatre Museum, Southwark
Old Operating Theatre Museum, Southwark
Old Operating Theatre Museum, Southwark
Old Operating Theatre Museum, Southwark

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