Carla Valentine is in charge of restoring all the medical specimens at Barts Pathology Museum. She talks to Katy Salter about corset-squashed livers, Sherlock Holmes and bodysnatchers…
How would you explain the museum to the uninitiated?
Barts is a medical museum which was built in the 1890s and was opened by the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII). It’s home to around 5,000 specimens. Its original purpose was to teach medical students, but these days they mainly use virtual reality instead. We’ve needed to find a different identity for the museum and now put on events – lectures, film screenings and more unusual events like Art Macabre workshops.
Tell us about your restoration project…
I’m working to repair all the specimens. I clean them out, organise them, catalogue and photograph them. I’m about 2,500 specimens into our 5,000-strong collection. It does take up my 9-5, so I try and organise all the events in my lunch break. I start work at about 8am and sometimes don’t go home ’til 6 or 7pm.
What’s the most unusual specimen you’ve come across in the collection?
One of my favourites is the tight-laced corset-damaged liver from 1907. It’s so rare and interesting. I spent a night wearing a corset recently. I only had it on for about five hours and it was absolute agony. We think we suffer when we wear high heels, but we didn’t suffer anything like women in that period.
What are the most popular events?
The taxidermy classes are really popular. People get to stuff the animals – they leave with a mouse. We did rabbits once, guinea pigs. They can bring their own props so we have Sylvanian Families-looking mice and hamsters with hats on! My favourite specimen is the corset-damaged liver from 1907. It’s so rare and interesting
What kind of people do the events attract?
All sorts. We get retired doctors, people from historical societies, students, and people who want to come out and socialise and have a glass of wine but also learn something – they don’t want to be in a vacuous environment like a bar. We’ve got a really big following on Twitter and Facebook.]
Does the nature of the building help raise interest?
Definitely. You can go and have a lecture anywhere but to actually be in a building like this…to walk through the courtyard of Barts Hospital that’s been there since the 1100s and come up these stone stairs that apparently Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about in Sherlock Holmes novels…it’s just like walking back in time.
What can you tell us about Barts and Sherlock Holmes?
Barts was the place that Sherlock and Watson first met, in a Study in Scarlet. My office is obviously part of the museum, which would’ve been part of the medical school. Doyle would probably have been here – he is a doctor. It’s said that he wrote some of the stories in my office, there used to be a plaque commemorating that fact. The legacy lives on – if you watch Sherlock on BBC, you’ll see Benedict Cumberbatch jumping off the top of my building.
Do you get time to hang out in the area?
Yeah. I love the pubs around here. I love the names of them – they always strike me as quite violent and morbid – The Hand and Shears, Butchers’ Hook and Cleaver, The Slaughtered Lamb. After our evening lectures we tend to wander off to the pubs and have a nightcap.
Are you interested in the history of the area?
Yes. I know a lot about the bodysnatchers, how they were based in some of the pubs around here, and some of the punishments that were carried out around Smithfield Market. I think the history of the area really suits the museum.
How did you get the job?
I did forensic science at university. Once I finished my degree I trained to become an anatomical pathology assistant. Altogether I was in mortuaries for about 8 years. But I’ve always had a real interest in art history as well, so this job is perfect as it combines the two. A lot of artists draw from the specimens. We actually have an artist in residence.
What’s the most rewarding thing about your job?
Every day, it’s when I see the specimens. I take pictures of them before and after and it’s incredible to see the difference. It’s really rewarding to know that these specimens have been around for over 100 years and they’ll now be around for another couple of 100.