Undiscovered gems of the Cambridge Science Festival… the Duckworth Collection at the LCHES.
18,050* people were at the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies last month.
*This figure is an estimate.
But I guess that 50 alive people came to visit some of the 18,000 human remains of the Duckworth Collection, kept at the LCHES.
Of course, because of the peculiar sensitivities of the British, most of the human remains weren’t (and aren’t ever) on display. But there were an impressive mass of human and hominid skull casts in the main reception room; the best I have ever seen in the UK, and even the Oklahoma Museum of Osteology’s wall of hominids to shame.
The arrangements aren’t normally laid out for public viewing, so it wasn’t obvious what I was looking at. But since the casts are so recognisably human, I couldn’t help but put human thoughts and emotions onto what I was seeing. For example, the white cast on the bottom shelf caught my eye – what has he said to offend all the other skulls so that they have moved away from him?
Every shelf merited further examination. A small corner had skulls with frilled ties or shell loops or re-fleshed in mud which reminded me of the Oxford Pitt Rivers “treatment of dead enemies” display. One simply contained a box labelled “Venerable Bede”, which has as story all of its own.
To their immense credit, in addition to the casts and the superbly interesting and enthusiastic living people volunteering their time, there were numerous real human skulls and bones, both in this room and upstairs.
Having such a large collection, the skulls they chose to display were fantastic. Evidence of infections that caused horrific malformations – hydroencephaly and microencephaly – causing skulls blown up like a balloon, or shrivelled like a deflated one. A tumour growth making a hole in the skull the size of my palm, and the heart-breaking evidence of new bone growth around it, reminding me that someone lived with this every day, and just had to make the best of it. An example of purposeful skull deformation by binding, which I had heard of in South America and so was surprised to hear this skull was from Hungary.
Picture above - human skulls in various shapes and sizes – from nearest; microcephaly, hydrocephaly, skull deformation by binding, and further behind – traces of illness, gunshot and sword wounds
All of these deformations just aren’t seen nowadays – we have such marvellous medical treatments and interventions, people don’t need to suffer like this anymore. It was a valuable reminder of how much the comfort of our lives has progressed in the last few centuries.
One reminder of the other side of modern advances, there were two examples of the evidence left on the skull by gunshot wounds. One poor soul shows an entry wound in the base of the skull – the bullet exiting through the frontal lobe and cracking the skull as it went. Next to it, a skull showing care to keep small fragments of cracked bone in place, and underneath, still inside the skull case, is the compressed bullet that didn’t quite exit the victim’s head.
Picture above- the impact of gun shot wounds. On the left showing the exit wound and cracked skull from a high velocity shot to the back of the head. On the right, a slower bullet, still in place on the inside surface.
But where were the crowds? This stunning collection is hidden away just one street from the Fitzwilliam Museum, and open for just one weekend. So why were there only 50 people visiting?
In recent years, there has been a massive resurgence in interest in anatomy, pushed forward by Damien Hirst and von Hagen’s Body Worlds: The Hunterian Museum visitor numbers have soared from 10,000 to 75,000 a year, prompting the major refurbishment starting in May (so visit soon before it closes). The Mütter Museum, (and in comparison to the Duckworth, it’s very modest) Hyrtl skull collection, visitor numbers continue to rocket from a few thousand a year in the 1990s to over 130,000 a year now.
I think because there is still such a concern about respectful treatment of human remains, collections rarely feel that they can make a big splash about their work. This country has become so closeted in death denial that we need to organise events such as Dying for Life in Cambridge to promote death awareness!
In other countries, the cover of the event brochure might have been covered in skulls, showing children staring in wonder at skulls, run competitions called “family fun” involving skulls. But not here. I’m sure the Duckworth would not offer a catalogue of skulls for sponsorship like the Hyrtl collection did. But this means that it is difficult for these precious collections in the UK to be properly funded. It is only because I am a ridiculous skull enthusiast that I checked them out, and decided to see what they were displaying. It was so marvellous that I just couldn’t prise myself away to make it to the talk I’d booked.
So, in my own small way, may I highly commend this wonderful institution to you all. Go whenever you can, check their news, go to their events, follow them on Facebook! Take every opportunity to see what wonders they guard for us, until we build enough interest to be brave enough to confront mortality again, and refill museums with the treasures we have hidden away.
Picture above - skull with healed wound on forehead and hole with spongy bone growth around a tumour site on top of the head. Next to it is a skull showing the eroded nose of a leprosy sufferer
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