Eine Kleine Nichtmusik

Witty and pertinent observations on matters of great significance OR Incoherent jottings on total irrelevancies OR Something else altogether OR All of the above

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Musical anatomy

Yesterday and today were "Doors Open" days in Edinburgh, organised by the Cockburn Association, a local heritage body. You're probably familiar with the idea (a lot of towns and cities have them now): buildings not normally open to the public, or parts of buildings normally hidden away, thrown open, sometimes just to walk round, sometimes with guided tours or information displays. Great fun.

A lot of the interesting buildings are in the suburbs, therefore not so easy to reach until I'm driving again. Plus I overslept yesterday, which didn't help. So I ended up just doing a couple of laces in the centre. But what places!

I started off with the Anatomy Museum and Lecture Theatre at the University Old Medical school. These are still in regular use by medical students, so even though the museum was formally opened to public access back in January it's only on the last Saturday of each month, and not much publicised. The lecture theatre is a lot bigger than the one we saw in Padua: built in 1877 it has a rake of 45-50 degrees and a dissecting table in the centre for a cadaver. I imagine when the table is occupied it still pongs a bit though. The students get to sit down in this one, with normal lecture desks, and indeed all the normal projection screens an such. And while it post-dates Doctor Knox, the anatomist who had his bodies provided by Burke and Hare (and who in any case gave his lectures privately), it's easy to imagine yourself back that little bit further.

The museum itself is amazing. I found it a real "Memento Mori": every time I looked at a body part, or model thereof, I found myself pondering all the various bits of me and how well they work, or don't. Having recently suffered a brain haemorrhage, for example, you can imagine I viewed the brain specimens with more than usual interest. and while A1AD is purely a genetic thing so not amenable to anatomy, I took a good look at the lungs on display.

Like all the best museums, it has a bit of everything. There is an Australain aboriginal burial pole displayed on the staircase, in which the dried-out bones remaining after air burials were placed. This procedure apparently has been dated back 50,000 years, making it the oldest known cultural practise on Earth. there are wax models of hands showing various skin diseases (in full colour!). There is a biggish comparative anatomy display, everything from whales to spiny ant-eaters. Did you know that armadillos are the only animals apart from ourselves which can contract leprosy? (I'm surprised Stephen Donaldson never mentioned that.)

You have to have human skeletons in an anatomny museum, and here we have two, displayed side by side. First we have William Burke, of Burke and Hare, and next to him is John Howison, the "Cramond Murderer", who has the dubious honour of being the last person in Britain to be sentenced to be hanged and dissected. We have casts of the skulls of Robert Burns and Robert the Brice. We have life masks and death masks of famous figures (Carl Maria von Weber's looks extraordinarily like Richard Thompson). Oh, and we have Tibetan trumpets made from human femurs and a Tibetan drum made from crania.

All in all, the coolest museum I've visited in a long time, and one which gives, along with all the trivia, a real sense of Edinburgh's central place in medical history.

Then it was on to the next museum, right next door as it happens: The Reid Concert Hall Museum, which is a terrific collection of musical instruments. Highlights include the original J Arthur Rank gong, owned (and played for the recrdings) by James Blades (the gigantic one you see is a papier-mache dummy: the real one is a couple of feet across), a 1930s drum kit, a "Turkish crescent" (which is a kind of tambourine-on-steroids on a stick, used in the 18th century for "Janissary music"), every kind of old clarinet/basset horn you could imagine, including a walking-stick clarinet and Frederick Thurston's old Boosey & Hawkes 1010s (same model my wife still plays). There are serpents (including the massive "Anaconda" used in one of the Hoffnumng concerts back in the 1960s. There are ophicleides (one of the ones not on display is rolled out occasionally for use in our orchestra when we do Berlioz). There are alphorns, posthorns, a trombone with a dragon's head bell. There are hurdy-gurdies, a Stroh violin (the ones with a metal horn), There is a shofar, a conch, and a Chinese mouth-organ. What we need is for somebody like James McMillan to write a piece using all of them: now that really would be something. Meanwhile, they're there, and you can see them on Wednesday afternoons or Saturday mornings. On the last Surday of each month you could combine your visit with one to the Anatomical Museum next door.

What are you waiting for?

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