The Old Operating Theatre Museum wins Museum and Heritage Awards for Excellence Prize

Found out yesterday that we had won a 2007 Museums and Heritage Award for Excellence, coming first place in the category for Projects on a Limited Budget !

This is amazing. In 1994 we won the Gulbenkian Award for the Best Museum won on a limited budget, and it is really excellent that the staff's work during the difficult days when the Museum was closed has been recognised.

"Tales from the Crypt" was an extramural project comprising the programme of activities and exhibition during the temporary relocation of the Museum's services and collection from the Garret to the Crypt of St Thomas' Church, necessitated by the repair and restoration of the roof space in 2005/06. The full story is detailed below in an article published by Museums & Heritage Magazine.

On the 50th anniversary of the rediscovery of the UK's only surviving 19th century operating theatre, we would like to take this opportunity to invite you to become a FRIEND OF THE MUSEUM and help secure the future of this unique heritage site.

For further information on how to become a Friend:

Stewart Caine
The Lord Brock Memorial Trust


Rumoured, Rediscovered, Restored

The Old Operating Theatre Museum is the stuff from which urban legends are made. The rumours of a 19th century surgical theatre hidden in the roof of a church, were in fact confirmed in 1956, when the Women¹s Operating Theatre of Old St Thomas¹s Hospital was discovered, nearly a century after the hospital itself had closed and relocated from Southwark to Lambeth. This unique survival of pre-modern medicine was restored under the custodianship of the Guy¹s Hospital Restoration Committee, with financial assistance from the Wolfson Foundation and the Wellcome Trust. In 1962 the Old Operating Theatre opened as a public museum, and in the past half a century the rumour has spread to some 25,000 visitors a year, including many school children who participate in demonstrations of Victorian Surgery.

The Herbal Sanctuary

The location of an operating theatre for women in the roof of a church was not so much a bizarre architectural folly but a pragmatic decision, necessitated by a shortage of space within the hospital. The roof space abuts an adjoining building which was formerly the southern wing of the hospital, housing the wards for the female patients. The Theatre was built in 1822 in the roof of St Thomas¹s Church, a spacious attic that was previously designated as an Herb Garret, which was used for the storage of medicinal herbs. While the Theatre is a functional if not aseptic space, the oak beamed Herb Garret is an arcane and almost rustic architectural interior, which houses the Museum¹s collection of medical artefacts. Situated in the roof of a church, the Museum was subject to the usual foibles of a church roof with significant rain penetration necessitating an extensive repair and restoration programme, which commenced at the end of 2005.

The Garret Restoration Project

St Thomas¹ Church dates from 1703, and is the oldest surviving part of the old St Thomas Hospital at London Bridge. The Church was deconsecrated at the end of the 19th century, and functioned as the Chapter House of Southwark Cathedral until the late 1980s, when the property was leased to Chapter Group Plc. In the late 1990s the fabric of the building was seriously damaged by the Jubilee Line Extension Project, and as a Grade 2* Listed Building was placed in 2002 on the Buildings at Risk Register. The current repair and restoration of the roof is the first step in remedying this dilapidation.

From Garret to Crypt

Since the roofing needed to be stripped, re-slated, and any water damage to the timber mansards repaired or replaced, the Museum was faced with the option of a temporary closure or a relocation of its activities. By the summer of 2005 the Trustees of The Lord Brock Memorial Trust, the managing body of the Museum, were able to make a modest grant available for the betterment of the roof space, and in appreciation the leaseholders wavered any commercial interest and agreed to make available the crypt of St Thomas¹ Church. The Museum would relocate from the attic to the cellar, from Garret to Crypt.

Houses in Motion

In December 2005 the small team of part-time curatorial staff arranged the relocation of some 1,250 medical artefacts, most of which were transported by the primary access route available to the public, a steep narrow 300-year-old spiral staircase. The packing and protection of the Museum¹s collection was assisted by conservation students from Camberwell College, and professional advice was sought from the conservator George Monger. A grant from Archives Libraries & Museums (ALM London) helped to meet the costs. By the end of December the Museum was stripped bare, and the sight of the unadorned interior structure created for some the uncanny impression of moving back in time to the date when the Theatre was rediscovered. All that now remained was the protection of the interior fabric and fixtures of the Museum, which was under the aegis of the Listed Consent for Planning Permission granted by the London Borough of Southwark, with specialist advice from English Heritage.

The Coffin Crypt

In January 2006 the Coffin Crypt opened to the public. The erroneous rumour circulated in the early 20th century of an operating theatre in the crypt of a church was swiftly, if ironically, resurrected. Not unexpectedly, some visitors were disappointed that the actual Theatre in the attic was unavailable for viewing, but most took full advantage of the concessionary admission to support the charity and view the medical collection, which was supplemented by a rolling programme of public events, titled Tales from the Crypt. The education service for school groups also thrived in the new environment. Crucially, the Museum Curator made the decision to take full advantage of the dislocation and collaborated with two artists, Richard Squires and Philip Warnell, to create Suture, Artwork without Anaesthetic. This exhibition bridged the relocation from the Garret to the Crypt, with the first instalment taking place in the Theatre and Garret in the autumn of 2005, and the second instalment taking place in the Coffin Crypt in 2006.

The House of Healing

The Museum¹s occupation of the Crypt also served, if inadvertently, the strategic aspiration of the Trustees to demonstrate the potential of the Museum, normally land locked in the roof of the Church, to expand its activities and to acquire the leasehold of the entire property. This aspiration forms the basis of the Museum¹s Development Project, The House of Healing, which seeks to fundraise for the creation of an Expanded Museum of Public Health and Medicine situated in the heart of Guy¹s and St Thomas¹ Hospitals.

The Return

Despite the doomsayers, the surveyors and contractors have ensured that the repair works remained on schedule, and the Museum will take repossession of the Theatre and Garret in May 2006. The roof restoration, providing appropriate protection for this unique heritage asset, is a fitting achievement in the year which marks the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the Old Operating Theatre.

Stewart Caine
Development Curator

Karen Howell
Museum Curator

Museums and Heritage Awards for Excellence


Anonymous said…
that's super Kevin. congratulations!

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