Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh: The Lister Project

Christopher Henry

Director, Heritage, Surgeons’ Hall Museums

Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh

Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh Nicolson Street, Edinburgh, Scotland UK EH8 9DW

Edinburgh, Scotland
Museums + Heritage Permanent Exhibition Award 2016


Transforming Scotland’s Oldest Medical Museum




Surgeons’ Hall Museums are part of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, one of the oldest surgical incorporations in Western Europe. The transformation of Surgeons’ Hall Museums, between 2014 and 2015, has created a unique museum space that marries architecture, science, art and human culture in innovative ways. It is now one of the most popular museums in the city of Edinburgh. The museum has been modernised to cater for all visitor types and is a complex melding of objects, architecture and audio visual display. It is one of the few places in the UK that one can see the preserved internal parts of the body. In 2013 the museum welcomed 36,000 visitors through its doors but was limited by a lack of exhibition space. Following a 4.4 million pound transformation the museum has expanded its collection display by over 2000 objects, and over 300 metres squared of display space has been added. We have created an engaging and entertaining museum that has been very positively received and has welcomed over 125,000 visitors within 18 months of opening.

/The project consisted of several elements:
> A glass link atrium including a lift for disabled visitors and stairs.
> A digital anatomy theatre and auditorium.
> A newly-opened 222 metres squared upper gallery in William Playfair’s 1832 building, complete with computerised interpretation and an additional 2000 objects on display.
> A new education space, ‘The Anatomy Lab’, where children and adults can enjoy specialist workshops or engage with the displays.
> A complete conservation programme of Playfair’s 1832 building façade.
> A new basement archive storage area that incorporates archive reading room and mobile shelves.

Our message throughout this project has been Know your own body, this is transmitted through many forms of interpretation and has helped us to develop a strong strategic ethos that has shaped our project
This project involved the work of over thirty volunteers and a small staff of nine people to develop storylines, conserve objects, carry out research and finally to install objects in the galleries.
The construction element of the project consisted of creating a new atrium with lift and stairs between the two historic buildings which house the collections. In addition, the conservation of the 1832 Playfair building façade was carried out restoring the upper section of the tympanum and frieze, and adding stone inserts to the columns.

Inside the museum the project needed a central focus to start the visitor experience and we decided upon the creation of a special digital dissection theatre to commemorate the first public dissection of 1702. This originally took place in Old Surgeons Hall in Edinburgh. In 2015 we have replicated this momentous occasion by creating a full size eighteenth century anatomy theatre but using new technology to create a digital cadaver. Our initial discussions and evaluations highlighted the need to create a gateway object that would enthral and educate. This would be the key opening display item giving the museum its Eureka moment. Following this, and on appointment of the design company, we discussed the best way of implementing this project. It was decided quite early on that the design should include original material from the Library and Archive of the College. In this respect we decided to use original anatomical drawings for the digital cadaver. The famous physician and anatomist Sir Archibald Pitcairn presided over the dissection and an executed criminal- David Myles- was dissected by a team of surgeons to demonstrate the interior of the human body. Over seven days each surgeon took his turn to carry out a dissection on different parts of the body.

Our Design Team has developed an almost exact replica of an early 18th century working theatre, but with modern sound systems and computer technology. The theatre is placed in the centre of the History of Surgery, with the display built into the surrounding structure. A costumed actor playing the part of the anatomist Archibald Pitcairn narrates the seven stages of the dissection, and as the narrative develops the body is dissected showing the internal organs, muscle structure and eventually the skeleton.

This fantastic object was created by a complex use of back projection onto a specially created screen in the shape of the human body. The projectors are controlled by Seventh sense technology and the contours of the body were mapped in 3d to follow the interior lines of the torso. The images used were all digitisations of the eighteenth century anatomy atlases held in the collections of the Library of the Royal College of Surgeons.


There are four main galleries dedicated to techniques of surgery and dentistry, the History of Surgery, The Pathology collections and a themed exhibition space. One of the largest elements of the displays is the upper pathology gallery, containing over 2000 specimens dedicated to the increasing complexity of surgical specialties. The specimens are divided into eleven specialties, with each area containing a touch screen history and videos explaining anatomy and common problems. Special care was taken to ensure that the specimens in these areas are carefully explained and illustrated, normally by an image that highlights infected tissue or unusual pathologies. We were acutely aware of the difficulty of understanding a pathological specimen as the tissue in the jar is normally bleached of colour. The lower gallery in this area deals with themed narratives: War and Surgery, Preservation of human tissue, Imaging and Women in Surgery.

Throughout these galleries we have added interactive elements. For example, in the imaging section a large touch screen encourages the visitor to explore the human body and this can be manipulated in 3 dimensions and systems, such as the vascular or lymphatic systems, and can be highlighted in both male and female form.

Surgeons’ Hall Museums has welcomed over 125,000 visitors through its doors since opening. It is now number seven in the top museums in Edinburgh according to Tripadvisor ratings. It has won several design and interpretation awards and has become an important visit for those wanting to explore the foundations of Edinburgh’s medical history.


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