Karen Howell - Curator at the Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret Museum

Interview by Sally Kindberg for Cityguide Magazine

You need to be reasonably fit (and definitely not squeamish) to visit the Old Operating Theatre Museum (opened in 1962) tucked away a couple of minutes from commuter-thronged London Bridge Station. It’s reached by climbing 30 or so wooden stairs up a very steep and narrow spiral staircase, with a handrail of what looks like an old bell-rope – appropriately enough as the entrance is in the old bell-tower of St. Thomas’s church.

Through the entrance and little shop is the roof space of the church, which includes a carefully restored 300 year old herb garret smelling faintly of ancient remedies, maybe from residues of snailwater, opium or treacle (handy for curing carbuncles)? This almost-forgotten space was bricked up and abandoned for nearly a hundred years until two medical men got curious, and discovered its amazing and cobwebby secrets in the 1956.

Now, it’s stuffed to the beams with medical exhibits – glutinous body parts in stained glass jars, (the anonymous 19th century brain is a favourite of Karen Howell, the curator), convoluted ear trumpets, and a huge collection of old surgical instruments. Displays of saws, chisels, hooks, fillets, crochets, drills, scoops, probes, tweezers and forceps are not for the fainthearted.

I met Karen in the 19th century operating theatre, a steeply sloped wooden amphitheatre opened in 1822, and once connected to the women’s wards (only women were operated on here) of the vast and ancient complex of St. Thomas’s Hospital before it moved to Lambeth in the 1860s. While we were talking,

a 4-year-old who’d wandered off from his mother was coolly shaking hands with a skeleton in a corner.

“This beautiful space must never be lost again,” said Karen, totally involved with the Museum. She grew up in Brighton, dreamed of being an artist and came to London in the 1980s to study at Chelsea School of Art. She’s interested in human anatomy, painting, jewelry, herbal remedies, and making installations and videos. She was a volunteer at the Museum, then assistant curator in the 1990s and later curator. She also studied for a Post Graduate Certificate in Museum Studies whilst working here. There are 6 part-time staff at the Museum, and the the director is Kevin Flude.

“Working here combines all my interests - it’s a multi-task position,” she explained, “This is a very physical environment.” Her role includes organising the collections, monitoring the state of the building, giving talks, herbal research, day-to-day dealing with the public, and even a bit of occasional bricklaying and woodwork.

Recent restoration work revealed some of the sawdust packed under the floorboards of the operating area where we were standing – it soaked up the blood and stopped it dripping on to the heads of church-goers below.

There’s also a certain amount of theatre involved in working at the Museum, as I soon learned. About a quarter of the Museum’s 30,000 annual visitors are children. Karen or another member of staff regularly give lectures and perform mock amputations. Visitors - including regular groups of young people studying GCSE History of Medicine - love it.

When I was there a noisy class of about 40 fifteen-year-old students filed in to stand in the wooden tiers of the theatre. They ‘volunteered’ a member of their group for a high-speed op. Surgeons had to be speedy in the early 19th century. This was before anaesthetics, so the shock would quite likely kill the patient. The fastest man with a saw (all-male surgeons in those days) could have a leg off in 30 seconds apparently.

Karen gave a talk and demo and it was gruesome and fascinating. The students were enthralled and went very quiet as she applied a (rather grubby) tourniquet above the knee of the ‘volunteer’ (who was being very good-natured about the whole thing), took a saw from a velvet-lined box and went through the motions of whipping off a gangrenous limb. Very fast with, thankfully, no blood. Being a curator here does indeed involve rather a lot of multi-tasking.

The Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret
9A St Thomas’ Street,
London SE1 9RY
Telephone 020 7188 2679
Open daily 10.30 am – 5pm
Admission £5.60 adults, £4.60 concessions, £3.25 children

See www.thegarret.org.uk for details of numerous events, tours, walks, and special group rates

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