Surgeons’ Hall Museum’s life-changing operation

The front of Surgeons' Hall. Picture: Sean Bell
The front of Surgeons' Hall. Picture: Sean Bell
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A museum said to house the UK’s largest and most historic collection of surgical pathology artefacts is to be transformed with the help of a £2.7 million lottery grant.

Surgeons’ Hall Museum in Edinburgh houses anatomical specimens and surgical instruments and charts the transition of medicine from perceived “witchcraft” through to recognised science.

An artist's impression of the new layout

An artist's impression of the new layout

Its collection includes a pocket book made from the skin of the 19th century murderer William Burke and a letter from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle crediting Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh Fellow Dr Joseph Bell as the main inspiration for the character of Sherlock Holmes.

Originally developed as a teaching museum for students of medicine, it has been open to the general public since 1832, making it Scotland’s oldest medical museum.

The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh (RCSEd), the UK’s oldest surgical Royal College, has been awarded the Heritage Lottery Fund grant to help redevelop its Surgeons’ Hall Museum.

The money will fund work to create new displays and galleries, doubling the number of items which can be put on display and showcase innovative audiovisual and interactive elements.

How the new anatomy theatre will look

How the new anatomy theatre will look

Ian Ritchie, president of the RCSEd, said: “We are delighted that the Heritage Lottery Fund has chosen to support this exciting and important project.

“The promotion of patient safety and care has been at the heart of our college and its activities for over 500 years, inspiring advances in our profession and across healthcare.

“Our museum and library lie at the core of this heritage. Through them we are able to highlight the achievements of the past, educate surgeons and the public about the development of our profession and inspire generations of future surgeons.”

The Lister Project – named after Fellow of the College Joseph Lister, who radically improved the safety of surgery by promoting the use of antiseptic technique – will cost £4.2m and transform the building, the first time it will have been radically altered since 1908.

The building, designed by William Playfair, will be conserved with contemporary additions such as a new glass atrium, providing the public with easier access. It will also feature a 17th century dissecting theatre.

A new, dedicated education suite will increase opportunities for learning for schools, families and special interest groups.

Colin McLean, head of the Heritage Lottery Fund in Scotland, said: “The Lister Project will take Surgeons’ Hall Museum to a world-class level commensurate with its outstanding collections.

“Scotland’s pioneering history of surgery will soon be a source of education and inspiration for visitors from home and abroad while making an important contribution to our tourist economy. The Heritage Lottery Fund is delighted to be helping make that happen.”

The museum has seen a “marked increase” in visitor numbers over the past four years according to the college’s director of heritage Chris Henry, who will lead the rebuilding project.

He said: “The museum collections are unique in their content and also in that they are displayed in the building originally built to house them nearly 200 years ago.

“The challenge of the Lister Project has been to produce a plan which will enhance the public space within the museum and ensure accessibility across all areas, whilst maintaining the integrity of the William Playfair-designed building in which the museum is primarily housed.”