Despite many years as a curator, the sheer variety of objects tucked away within our medical collections can still surprise me. Collections that are also so large that, despite a strong presence within the public displays at the Science Museum, only around 5% of our medical objects are on show at any one time. Inevitably, some categories of objects have a higher public profile than others.
For example, while the eagle-eyed visitor to the Science Museum’s galleries may spot a snuff box or two on display, they would probably be amazed to hear that there are several hundred more in our London store.
Made from a variety of materials and often beautifully crafted, snuff boxes could be conversation pieces as well as status symbols. Many of those in our collections are decorated with medically related themes.
Here a physician attends a wealthy bed-bound patient. Perhaps the box was given in grateful thanks for medical services received at a time of need.
Certainly this is the case with these two engraved boxes, both presented to individuals for their sterling assistance during cholera epidemics in the 19th century.
Elsewhere, box decorations are more irreverent. While I’m sure we all appreciate the benefits of sterile instruments and dental anaesthesia, these three boxes clearly show how all the fun has gone out of tooth extraction.
However, intricate carving, worthy engravings and witty painting aside, when it comes to really ostentatious snuff taking nothing quite beats taking a ‘pinch’ from a decorated ram’s head.
So that’s what happens to all those army mascots!