Kelly Davio’s previous Waiting Room columns for The Butter can be found here.
Last month, my husband had a full week of business meeting at his company’s London office, and I decided to tag along. “Tag along” makes it sound like a small thing to make such a big expedition; in reality, since I got sick, I haven’t traveled very far from my home or my phalanx of doctors. But as I’d been doing reasonably well this spring and had a big heap of unused airline miles, a relatively forgiving workweek, and a passport that was about to expire without a single stamp in it, I decided that the universe was giving me permission to have an adventure more lively than a walk around my neighborhood. Despite the fact that I had to compensate for mobility issues, there is something wonderfully life-affirming about being able to call it “tagging along.”
So tag along I did. One of my favorite tourist behaviors is visiting the stranger museums the world has to offer—ones dedicated to highly specific collections of things I never realized I needed to know about. From whiskey production equipment to apothecary bottles and ritualistic religious paraphernalia, if someone has hoarded it, I want to have a look. So you can imagine my delight when I learned that something called the Hunterian Museum (a facility that Google Maps promised would feature a collection of historical surgical instruments) was just about a block from my hotel.
When I arrived at opening time, I learned that the museum sits inside England’s Royal College of Surgeons. There was some sort of stately academic procession going on inside, with students and professors gathering around in gowns and mothers wearing corsages and looking proud. I skirted around them and into the collection rooms, which I had almost entirely to myself at the early hour. The objects I passed had belonged to John Hunter, a surgeon who, in the 1700s, seems to have developed a number of helpful, forward-thinking surgical practices alongside an enormous collection of pickled specimens. I’m a bit squeamish, so I avoided looking too closely at what was floating in formaldehyde (the primary benefit of having blurry vision much of the time is that it’s hard to gross myself out unless I really work at it).
But past the pickled remains of every kind of mammal and reptile imaginable, toward the back of the wing, was a part of the collection that was disconcerting in a different way altogether. It seems that the doctor enjoyed collecting artwork featuring bodies he considered aberrant. There was a salacious-looking painting of a very fat man. There were portraits of those with genetic mutations or medical conditions that rendered them unusually tall or short. There was a portrait of a woman whom Hunter seemingly took for an medical curiosity solely because she was Malaysian, not English. I was looking, it seemed to me, at Hunter’s own private freak show.
These weren’t artifacts of surgical history, and they had no possible medical value; these were images I could only imagine a roomful of men leering at, joking about. I wondered what Hunter and his cronies must have said about these people whom they thought less than normal, maybe even less than human.
It was almost overwhelming, standing in front of this creepy display by myself. A part of me hoped that someone else would show up in this part of the museum so I could say “this is pretty screwed up, isn’t it?” and get a knowing nod in return.
I didn’t have to wait long for other people to join me in the wing. A few minutes later, some surgical students and their professors wandered in as they waited for whatever ceremony they’d soon take part in. Two young women walked up behind me. The first produced a bag of what appeared to be Cheerios from inside her cloak and began to eat loudly from it. “Oh, you have cereal?” the other said, and dipped a hand in. Crunching followed. A man in a doctoral hood pointed toward part of the exhibit and laughed. “This is wonderful!” he said. Another two students wandered in, discussing how important it was to “always be at the most prestigious places. It’s simply impossible to go from Birmingham to Cambridge!”
I didn’t have to wonder any longer what Hunter and his friends would have said as they stood around his art collection. It probably sounded roughly like what I was hearing around me—the brute ambition, the scoffing, the lack of respect for the fact that we were looking at people, not things. As I listened to them, it occurred to me that a person like me, a body like mine, could easily have been the subject of one of those paintings. I had more in common with those whose bodies were on display for others’ prurient interests than I did with any of the people walking through that museum with me.
I recognize that it takes a tough stomach to be a surgeon, or any kind of physician. The doctors I know in my social circles and in my own family have all developed impressive coping skills that include a hefty dose of gallows humor and an ability to emotionally detach while still showing a kind face to patients. It’s my hope that the same can be said of the doctors and medical students in the museum with me that day, and that they wouldn’t dream of treating their own patients with the kind of crassness they directed at the people pictured in the exhibit. But surely it’s not too much to ask that people—whether doctors or the rest of us hoi polloi—do a bit better than a sack of Cheerios and a guffaw when faced with images that represent a long and terrible history of people being mistreated for their physical differences from the cultural norm. Surely a little empathy isn’t all that much to ask from our fellow human beings.
Kelly Davio is the co-publisher and poetry editor of Tahoma Literary Review and author of the poetry collection Burn This House (Red Hen Press, 2013). She is the former managing editor of The Los Angeles Review and is a reviewer for Women’s Review of Books. Her work has appeared in Best New Poets, Verse Daily, The Rumpus, and others. She earned her MFA in poetry from Northwest Institute of Literary Arts, and is a freelance writer in the Seattle area.