Thursday, July 24, 2008

London Bodies

Happened across the exhibition in the Wellcome Institute on Euston Road in London about London bodies. Skeletons from two thousand years of the city's history lie laid out in glass cases, with tantalising notes beside them.

An elderly man with evidence of rickets in childhood and another bone bending disease in adulthood. A baby with smallpox. A prostitute with syphilis. A young woman with no obvious disease.

The light is low, the skeletons all look roughly the same at first glance, and only the careful and brief notes with them distinguish one from another. Then, a shock. William Wood, exhumed from his grave from the 19th century. How would I feel if one of my 19th century ancestors had been laid out in this way for all to see?

The Institute is of course a temple to science, and scientific methods. It looks at the human and sees only the flesh and the bones... the things which can be measured, touched, documented and studied. But the remains of human bodies, these skeletons... once they were people, and they loved and lost and lived and died... maybe it should make no difference whether they are a nameless man from a Cluniac monastery from six centuries ago or a beadle from the 19th century, but somehow... it seems disrespectful, wrong, to bring someone out of the grave after so short a time in it. How would I feel, similarly displayed, in 2170?

We looked at them with interest, tried to compare the teeth of the Romans who ground them down, and those of the 18th century Londoners... rotten. I wondered what sort of lives these people represented... mostly hard I guessed, with broken bones badly mended, and signs of vitamin deficiencies.

Mostly I felt uncomfortable in a world which ignores our deeply spiritual nature, which cannot be neatly filed away in a box, in favour of the material witness to our existence, numbered and stored away for future reference.

However, it's very interesting - more detail here.

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