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Exhibition National Museum of Scotland

Anatomy: A Matter of Death and Life

1 Jul - 30 Oct 2022

Explore the history of anatomical study, from artistic explorations by Leonardo da Vinci to the Burke and Hare murders.

This exhibition will look at the social and medical history surrounding the practice of dissection. It will trace the relationship between anatomy, its teaching and cultural context and the bodies that were dissected. Looking at Edinburgh’s role as an international centre for medical study, the exhibition will offer insight into the links between science and crime in the early 19th century.

Leonardo da vinci illustration of arm muscles.

The veins and muscles of the arm by Leonardo da Vinci. Lent by Her Majesty The Queen from the Royal Collection. © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021.

Illustration of a skeleton.

Illustration from Tabulae sceleti et musculorum corporis humani (Tables of the skeleton and muscles of the human body), Bernhard Siegfried Albinus, Leiden, 1747. © Wellcome Collection.

Covering 500 years of medical exploration, Anatomy: A Matter of Death and Life features early examples of anatomical art, including sketches by Leonardo da Vinci, lent by Her Majesty The Queen from the Royal Collection. They introduce the search for understanding about the human body and anatomy’s place in the development of medical knowledge across Europe.  

You will find out more about the role anatomy played in the Enlightenment. In the 18th century, Edinburgh developed into the leading centre for medical teaching in the UK, and the demand for bodies to dissect and study vastly outstripped legitimate supply. The acquisition of bodies was intertwined with poverty and crime, with grave-robbing (stealing unprotected bodies for dissection) becoming a common practice.

A white jar with the word "leeches" on it.

White glazed earthenware leech jar. © National Museums Scotland.

A large grey key.

Iron pipe key, for the padlock of the dead-safe of Corstorphine Churchyard. © National Museums Scotland.

In 1828, William Burke and William and Margaret Hare killed 16 people in the impoverished Edinburgh district of West Port and sold the bodies to an anatomist for dissection. The exhibition examines the circumstances that gave rise to the murders and asks if there were particular reasons that they took place in Edinburgh. It unpicks the relationship between science and deprivation and looks at the public reaction to the crimes and the anatomical practices responsible for them.

The exhibition also highlights the changing practices and attitudes around body provision in the century and a half since the Burke and Hare murders, bringing the story right up to date. It looks at the modern approach to body donation at universities in Scotland and contrasts the ethics, practices and beliefs today with those of two centuries ago.

Collection of miniature coffins with lids and carved figures, found in 1836. © National Museums Scotland.

Among the objects on display, you'll see a 'mort safe', a heavy iron box placed over a coffin to deter would-be body snatchers. Other notable objects include a full-body anatomical model by pioneering model maker Louis Auzoux, ground-breaking casts of body parts, William Burke's skeleton and written confession, and the Arthur's Seat miniature coffins.

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Getting here

Plan your visit to National Museum of Scotland

National Museum of Scotland
Chambers Street

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We want everyone who comes to our museums to enjoy their time with us and make the most of their visit. 

  • There is level access to the Museum via the main doors to the Entrance Hall on Chambers Street and the Tower entrance at the corner of Chambers Street and George IV Bridge. 
  • Lifts are available to all floors and accessible toilets are available on most floors, as well as a Changing Places (U) toilet in the Entrance Hall on Level 0.
  • There is an induction loop in the Auditorium.
  • Guide dogs, hearing dogs and other recognised assistance dogs are admitted.

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