For my second day in London, I had grand plans of waking up at a decent hour and going on a street art tour. Alas, the fatigue of jet lag and travel had not quite worn off, and I somehow turned off my alarm and then fell back asleep with my phone in my hand, waking up hours later to the glare of sunlight. So I missed the first plan, but in the long run it was probably good to get some rest at some point. The goal of this vacation was, after all, partly to get some relaxation away from NYC where I’m constantly running around to a million and one places.
To motivate myself to speed out of the flat and into the sunny day, I decided I would visit the Hunterian Museum, one of the places I most wanted to see in London. The medical museum is contained within the Royal College of Surgeons (their logo is above) and is based in the collection of pioneering surgeon John Hunter. Photography was not allowed, but that gave me the opportunity to just focus on the dense display of anatomical specimens.
I was lucky enough to be visiting when one of the surgeons of the college was giving a tour focused on bladder stones, which turned out to be a particularly awful ailment for the days of early medicine. (I don’t think they’re at all pleasant now. I immediately drank about a gallon of water after the somewhat foreboding tour.) I also spent time wandering the two floors of the museum, packed with every type of medical specimen in jars and plenty of skeletons and even an art and extinct animal collection. While the museum now looks like this, it used to look something like this. Unfortunately, the bombings of World War II which ravaged much of London did not spare the Hunterian Museum, and the collection had to be rebuilt and restored until it could be reopened in 1963.
There are around 3,500 specimens in the museum’s collection that originate with John Hunter himself, including some pieces that demonstrate his skill and innovation with surgery, as well as his more curious collecting habits. Most visibly is the skeleton of the “Irish Giant” Charles Bryne, who was around 8 feet tall and exhibited himself as a curiosity in London. Unfortunately, fame encouraged his drinking habit and he died at 22. He was well aware that anatomists had an eye on his massive skeleton, so he paid someone to bury him at sea. Unfortunately, John Hunter was able to pay more and now Bryne’s skeleton keeps a towering watch over the Hunterian Museum.
The Irish Giant is not the only person who lived as a curiosity who ended up in eternal rest at the Hunterian Museum. Caroline Crachami, known in her lifetime as the Sicilian Fairy, has her 19.5 inch skeleton on display at the Hunterian, despite her father’s late attempts to secure her body away from the anatomists. Of course, not all the specimens at the Hunterian were seized from unwilling donors, but those skeletons of strange proportion that watch you with gaping sockets from behind the class do tend to have the best stories. On the same square (Lincoln’s Inn Fields, at one time popular with duelists) as the Hunterian Museum is another space of curiosity: Sir John Soane’s Museum. Once the home of the Soane family led by the neo-classical architect Sir John Soane (designer of the Dulwich Picture Gallery among other structures), the museum is packed with carefully organized clutter composed of Soane’s collections of antiquities and art. No photos were allowed inside, so click here, here, here, and here for an idea of the space.
The most impressive room was the Sepulchral Chamber, named for the sarcophagus of Seti I that Soane acquired (and was so excited about he had a party that lasted for days), which reminded me of the cast gallery in Oxford with its dense presentation of classical and ancient sculptures and reliefs. Except unlike the cast gallery, which has plaster casts of famous classical sculptures, this was all real. From a window in this lower level, I looked out to a courtyard and saw a grave that said “Alas! Poor Fanny!,” the final resting place of Soane’s dog Fanny who got to be buried not far from the funerary vessel of an ancient king. To say that Soane was whimsically eccentric would be an understatement, and it the museum is mostly exhibited exactly as he left it. He ended up leaving it to an organization that would continue it as a museum, rather than his son, who he despised for his lack of interest in architecture and drunken ways. After an evening break to get over the last of my jet lag, I walked to my planned theatre activity and ended up cutting through Piccadilly Circus, a sort of more charming Times Square. Which still isn’t very charming, but much less aggressive. Alfred Gilbert’s statue of Anteros is its most recognizable icon and a popular meeting spot, always busy with a movement of people. Random fact: I read that Piccadilly Circus was the code name for the Allied invasion on D-Day. If you know me well, you won’t be too surprised that I was seeing Les Misérables that evening, which is my favorite musical, but which I haven’t actually seen in person many times due to living in Oklahoma for most of my life. The first time I saw it was actually at the Palace Theatre in London, although it is now at the Queen’s Theatre, which has an ornate Edwardian interior. You wouldn’t expect that from its modern exterior that doesn’t look too different from the advertising-covered building in Piccadilly Circus. The facade was destroyed by a German bomb in 1940 and was totally rebuilt, although the interior was preserved. An appropriate location for a musical whose pivotal scene is a deadly battle. Les Misérables has been playing in London since 1985, so we are pretty much the same age, and I’d like to think we still feel young.
I would end up see Les Misérables twice while in London, as my friend who arrived for my second week of travel had not seen it before, and who am I fooling about my obsessive tendencies with the things I love. For this first viewing, I’d booked a ticket online before arriving in London (despite this show running so long, it still sells out regularly) in the front row at the very right, which is designated as a cheap seat because you can’t really see the actors’ feet or the back of the stage. But you do feel like the barricade is right in your face, and I enjoyed the view into the orchestra pit brass section. I have a feeling I am the type who usually buys this seat, as the second time we were in the balcony and I looked down to see another girl in her late twenties arrive by herself and studiously read the program. One perk of being so close was that I got to see how quickly the ensemble actors switched characters, from chain gang to farm workers, to desperate poor, to rebel students, with seemingly no break and slight differences of acting for each. I also like that, despite some more modern orchestrations, it still has some of its 80s vibe in the admittedly silly wigs a lot of the performers have to wear and just over-the-top nature of the whole production (think of its fellow 80s shows like Cats, Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon, etc. and their bombastic sets and music), which isn’t seen in newer musical productions. And it’s totally embarrassing that something I know by heart can still almost make me cry at the end (sometimes good I go to some things by myself).
My days of being an intense online fan back in high school are over, so I’m not sure what the general opinions on the principle actors are, but I thought they were all great, especially David Shannon who I felt really inhabited the character of Jean Valjean from convict to redeemed father figure. I also liked Hadley Fraser as Javert, who I have an embarrassing theatre crush on, even if there was way too much makeup caked on his beautiful face in an attempt to make him look older and more serious and you do end up wondering why he wears such giant hats. But I guess we were in the QUEEN’s theatre, and she is quite the hat aficionado. Anyway, a wonderful experience and I’m sure if my high school self knew she could one day travel to London by herself and see Les Miserables as many times as she wanted she would be thrilled about the future.
A day 3 post will be up soon, except I won’t be in London! More England adventures are on their way.