Author Archives: Lisa O'Sullivan, senior curator of medicine

‘Where are the shrunken heads?’

We curators field lots of questions from the public about the Museum collections. One of the most common ones is when visitors remember seeing something when they came as a child, and now, back with their children, or grandchildren, want to know why they can’t find it again.

Sometimes the answer is simple (the dinosaurs are next door!). At other times, galleries have closed, or objects been taken off display – and this is the fate of our shrunken heads, or tsantsas.

Traditionally, these were made by the Jivaro tribes, based in the Amazon, in areas which are now part of Ecuador and Peru. Shrunken heads were made as part of elaborate rituals, to celebrate victory over a slain enemy. You can find out more here and here.

Ours came off display because they were in an inaccessible part of the museum. If they had not, we would still have needed to reconsider their display in response to new guidelines about how human remains are displayed in museums.

The next question I usually get is: ‘ Would you put them back on display?’. The answer to this is a - qualified – yes.  But it would have to be in the appropriate circumstances.  What would these be?  An exhibition looking at traditional cultures in the Amazon perhaps.  But it’s properly not an exhibition I will be asked to curate any time soon.

So for those still looking for shrunken heads, the best place to go is the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, or the Wellcome Collection in London. Or for anyone in Philadelphia, the very fabulous Mutter Museum is preparing a large exhibition of tsantsas to open soon.

If there are any questions you would like to ask a curator please leave them as comments below…

These are a few of my favourite skulls

November 2 is the Day of the Dead, a colourful Mexican festival where people remember friends and family members who have died. A perfect day to have a look at some of our objects which represent the dead …

First off there are death masks, used both to commemorate the famous and the criminal. This death mask of Benjamin Disraeli was taken six hours after he died in 1881.

Wax death mask of Benjamin Disraeli,

Wax death mask of Benjamin Disraeli

We’ve also got some slightly gruesome anatomical models

Wax model of a female human head

Wax model of a female human head

Such models would normally be made as educational tools, but were also part of the strong aesthetic tradition which linked art and anatomy

We also have a whole range of vanitas figures and memento mori – reminding the living of the transience of life and the inevitability of death. Snakes and frogs are  a common feature of such figures, and I’m told that the use of the frog reflects the dramatic changes of form it goes through during its life cycle, making it a potent symbol of change and renewal.   

Ivory model of a skull and a human head

Ivory model of a skull and a human head

Finally, some encourage a sense of fatalistic humour about the end of life:

Ivory model of a human skull with moving parts

Ivory model of a human skull with moving parts

Yes, the tongue pokes out and the eyes roll up.  What more could you ask for in a memento mori?

The old is new again

I’m just back from a conference in Dresden. The Deutsches Hygiene-Museum, home to the wonderful transparent man (and woman), hosted a conference looking at wax moulages.

Moulages are based on casts taken directly from patients, which are then moulded in wax to present case studies of particular diseases, especially dermatological conditions. Each one has its own medical and cultural story to tell, at once a medical specimen, an individual’s history as a patient, and cultural artefact.


These examples are from our collection, and were part of a touring anatomical show in the 1920s.  These ‘before and after’ waxes show the effects of Salvarsan, the ‘magic bullet’ which was the first effective treatment for syphilis.

One of the great things about the conference was the sense that all kinds of people are getting interested in moulages again. The Charité Museum in Berlin is working on a project documenting moulage collections, while the Hôpital St Louis has its collections online. But also at the conference were people reviving the craft skills and not only preserving but making new moulages. Dermatologists use them to teach students about once common diseases which are now rare and you can even buy bleeding moulages for casualty simulations. Or perhaps Hallowe’en…

It’s great to see the value of items that for while looks like they might be considered as historical ‘curiosities’ being recognised again.

So what gets in?

Having blogged about our tamiflu discussions (we medical curators have exciting lives), I thought might be a good idea to talk about the kind of things we have acquired in the last year or so.

Resuscitator for reviving "persons apparently dead"

Resuscitator for reviving "persons apparently dead"

One of my favourites is our new smoking collection. Smoking, and tobacco, have a long and not always negative association with medicine. So we already have a perhaps surprising number of objects related to tobacco, from smoking paraphernalia to the rather fabulous Resuscitator for reviving “persons apparently dead” (aka tobacco enema). This scary contraption used tobacco’s properties as a stimulant to try and revive unconcious individuals – through the mouth or rectum.

Branded ashtrays

Branded ashtrays

When the smoking ban came into effect in England on July 1, 2007, our public health curator had already identified a whole set of objects which might not exist in the future. We collected ‘no smoking’ signs, branded ashtrays, and complimentary matches given out by restaurants; all rescued from the bars and clubs of London (it’s a tough job…)

Keeping yourself clean…

Sometimes a single object can express a lot about a contemporary issue, and where it fits into shifting ideas about health and personal responsibility. Take the PatientPak, launched in the UK in September 2008. The kit contains antimicrobial products claiming to kill 99.99% of hospital germs including Novovirus and E coli and the ‘superbug’ MRSA. Bought via the internet or in high street shops, the manufacturers advertise their product as an ‘ideal gift’ for people going into hospital.



The issue of hospital cleanliness seems to be one that just won’t go away, reappearing in the media time and time again. In a UK government debate in July 2008 it was reported that approximately 9% of in-patients were affected by hospital acquired infections, or HAIs, causing or contributing towards 20,000 deaths a year as well as 300,000 non-fatal cases.

In 2004, NHS trusts were set a target to reduce MRSA by 50% and figures show that cases are slowly dropping but HAIs still remain an issue fixed in the public’s mind. PatientPak is one response to public concern over hygiene in hospitals. For the manufacturers, the product is a way for patients to take control over their hospital stay and decrease both their risk of acquiring and their fear of HAIs.

For some in the medical profession, products such as these not only increase patient anxiety, but also imply that maintaining cleanliness in hospitals has become the patient’s responsibility. They are also concerned that claims about the ‘dangers’ of a hospital visit might make vulnerable patients more afraid to seek the health care they need, or that patients make decisions based on fear, rather than evidence.

For us in the Museum, collecting the product doesn’t mean we fall on one side of the debate or the other. Objects like this help us tell stories about health consumerism, the history of hospital care, and of course the role of the media in debates surrounding health.

Time to collect tamiflu?

Working at a Museum doesn’t just mean thinking about the past, often it involves a bit of dabbling in futurology as well. We are lucky enough to have a very rich medical collection at the Science Museum, centred on objects collected by Henry Wellcome. However, his collection ends in 1936, when he died. So, in order to keep up to date, we are always thinking about the kind of objects that we need to acquire for the collection.

With medical technology changing so rapidly, we could easily run out of space unless we collect carefully. One of our criteria is to collect things which represent a real shift in medical practice, or the way the public understand and use a particular medicine.

With ‘swine’ flu (H1N1) having been declared a pandemic, my colleagues and I have been discussing whether or not it is time to collect tamiflu. I’m not so sure it is… Why not? While the word ‘pandemic’ sounds very extreme, it actually means that an infectious disease that can be found globally. The ‘ Spanish’ flu pandemic of 1918-1919 killed over 20 million people, and was thought to have infected half the world’s population. But not all pandemics have such high infection or mortality rates. And the use of an anti-viral treatment such as tamiflu isn’t a new idea.

Retrovir (zidovudine, AZT)  -

Retrovir (zidovudine, AZT) - the first antiviral approved for treating HIV

We do have antivirals in the collection already, for instance AZT, the first successful anti-viral able to treat HIV/AIDS. This was such a major shift in the treatment of HIV/AIDs, we felt we should acquire some. But while it went on the market in 1987, we didn’t acquire any until 1994 – perhaps for ethical reasons, as it is difficult to justify collecting a treatment which is in high demand and short supply.

As for the tamiflu – one of my colleagues thinks the current pandemic, and the media and public responses to it, justify us looking at acquiring some. Her suggestion? She has been offered a half finished packet, which someone she knows stopped taking due to the side-effects. Not only does this remove any ethical issues (the medicine can’t be re-prescribed to someone else), there’s also another interesting story to be told, about patient compliance.

What are your thoughts? Should we take on tamiflu?