My week of English wonders – II

(Continued from the previous post)

The Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art & Natural History still resides in its original location, in Mare Street, Hackney, East London (some years ago I sent over a trusted correspondant and published his ironic reportage).
Many things have changed since then: in 2014, the owner launched a 1-month Kickstarter campaign which earned him £ 16,000, allowing him to turn his eclectic collection into a proper museum, complete with a small cocktail bar, an art gallery and an underground dinining room. Just a couple of tables, to be precise; but it’s hard to think of another place where guests can dine around an authentic 19th century skeleton.


The outrageous bad taste of placing human remains inside a dinner table is a good example of the sacrilegious vein that runs through the whole disposition of objects collected by Viktor: here the very idea of the museum as a high-culture institution is deconstructed and openly mocked. Refined works of art lay beside pornographic paperbacks, rare and precious ancient artifacts are on display next to McDonald’s Happy Meal toy surprises.

But this is not a meaningless jumble — it goes back to the original idea of a Museum being the domain of the Muses, a place of inspiration, of mysterious and unexpected connections, of a real attack to the senses. And this wunderkammer could infuriate wunderkammern purists.




When I met up with him, Viktor Wynd didn’t even need to talk about himself. Among dodo bones, giant crabs, anatomical models, skulls and unique books, unmatched from their very titles — for instance Group Sex: A How-To Guide, or If You Want Closure in Your Relationship, Start with Your Legs — the museum owner was immersed in the objectification of his boundless imagination. As he moved along the display cases in his immense collection (insured for 1 million pounds), he looked like he was wandering through the rooms of his own mind.
Artist, surrealist and intellectual dandy, his life story as fascinating as his projects, Viktor always talks about the Museum as an inevitable necessity: “I need beauty and the uncanny, the funny and the silly, the odd and the rare. Rare and beautiful things are the barrier between me and a bottomless pit of misery and despair“.

And this strange bistro of wonders, where he holds conferences, cocktail parties, masqued balls, exhibitions, dinners, is certainly a rare and beautiful thing.




I then moved to the London Bridge area. In front of Borough Market is St. Thomas Street, where old St. Thomas church stands embedded between modern buildings. It was not the church itself I was interested in, but rather its garret.
The attic under the church’s roof hosts a little known museum with a peculiar history.





The Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret is located in the space where all pharmaceuticals were prepared and stored, to be used in the annexed St. Thomas Hospital. A first section of the museum is dedicated to medicinal plants and antique therapeutic instruments. On display are several devices no longer in use, such as tools for cupping, bleeding and trepanation, and other quite menacing contraptions. But, together with its unique location, what gives this part of the museum its almost fantastic dimension is the sharp fragrance of dried flowers, herbs and spices (typical of other ancient pharmacies).









If the pharmacy is thought to have been active since the 18th Century, only in 1822 a part of the garret was transformed into operating theatre — one of the oldest in Europe.
Here the patients from the female ward were operated. They were mostly poor women, who agreed to go under the knife before a crowd of medicine students, but in return were treated by the best surgeons available at the time, a privilege they could not have afforded otherwise.
Operations were usually the last resort, when all other remedies had failed. Without anestetics, unaware of the importance of hygiene measures, surgeons had to rely solely on their own swiftness and precision (see for instance my post about Robert Liston). The results were predictable: despite all efforts, given the often already critical conditions of the patients, intraoperative and postoperative mortality was very high.







The last two places awaiting me in London turned out to be the only ones where photographs were not allowed. And this is a particularly interesting detail.

The first was of course the Hunterian Museum.
Over two floors are displayed thousands of veterinary and human anatomical specimens collected by famed Scottish surgeon John Hunter (in Leicester Square you can see his sculpted bust).
Among them, the preparations acquired by John Evelyn in Padua stand out as the oldest in Europe, and illustrate the vascular and nervous systems. The other “star” of the Museum is the skeleton of Charles Byrne, the “Irish giant” who died in 1783. Byrne was so terrified of ending up in an anatomical museum that he hired some fishermen to throw his corpse offshore. This unfortunately didn’t stop John Hunter who, determined to take possession of that extraordinary body, bribed the fishermen and paid a huge amount of money to get hold of his trophy.

The specimens, some of which pathological, are extremely interesting and yet everything seemed a bit cold if compared to the charm of old Italian anatomy museums, or even to the garret I had just visited in St. Thomas Church. What I felt was missing was the atmosphere, the narrative: the human body, especially the pathological body, in my view is a true theatrical play, a tragic spectacle, but here the dramatic dimension was carefully avoided. Upon reading the museum labels, I could actually perceive a certain urgency to stress the value and expressly scientific purpose of the collection. This is probably a response to the debate on ethical implications of displaying human remains in museums, a topic which gained much attention in the past few years. The Hunterian Museum is, after all, the place where the bones of the Irish giant, unscrupulously stolen to the ocean waves, are still displayed in a big glass case and might seem “helpless” under the visitors’ gaze.

My last place of wonder, and one of London’s best-kept secrets, is the Wildgoose Memorial Library.
The work of one single person, artist Jane Wildgoose, this library is part of her private home, can be visited by appointment and reached through a series of directions which make the trip look like a tresure hunt.
And a tresure it is indeed.

Jane is a kind and gentle spirit, the incarnation of serene hospitality.
Before disappearing to make some coffee, she whispered: “take your time to skim the titles, or to leaf through a couple of pages… and to read the objects“.
The objects she was referring to are really the heart of her library, which besides the books also houses plaster casts, sculptures, Victorian mourning hair wreaths, old fans and fashion items, daguerrotypes, engravings, seashells, urns, death masks, animal skulls. Yet, compared to so many other collections of wonders I have seen over the years, this one struck me for its compositional grace, for the evident, painstaking attention accorded to the objects’ disposition. But there was something else, which eluded me at that moment.

As Jane came back into the room holding the coffee tray, I noticed her smile looked slightly tense. In her eyes I could guess a mixture of expectation and faint embarassement. I was, after all, an outsider she had intentionally let into the cosiness of her home. If the miracle of a mutual harmony was to happen, this could turn out to be one of those rare moments of actual contact between strangers; but the stakes were high. This woman was presenting me with everything she held most sacred — “a poet is a naked person“, Bob Dylan once wrote — and now it all came down to my sensibility.

We began to talk, and she told me of her life spent safeguarding objects, trying to understand them, to recognize their hidden relationships: from the time when, as a child, she collected seashells on the southern shores of England, up to her latest art installations. Little by little, I started to realize what was that specific trait in her collection which at first I could not clearly pinpoint: the empathy, the humanity.
The Wildgoose Memorial Library is not meant to explore the concept of death, but rather the concept of grief. Jane is interested in the traces of our passage, in the signs that sorrow inevitably leaves behind, in the absence, in the longing and loss. This is what lies at the core of her works, commissioned by the most prestigious institutions, in which I feel she is attempting to process unresolved, unknown bereavements. That’s why she patiently fathoms the archives searching for traces of life and sorrow; that’s why her attention for the soul of things enabled her to see, for instance, how a cold catalogue accompanying the 1786 sale of Margaret Cavendish’s goods after her death could actually be the Duchess’s most intimate portrait, a key to unearthing her passions and her friendships.

This living room, I realized, is where Jane tries to mend heartaches — not just her own, but also those of her fellow human beings, and even those of the deceased.

And suddenly the Hunterian Museum came to my mind.
There, as in this living room, human remains were present.
There, as in this living room, the objects on display spoke about suffering and death.
There, as in this living room, pictures were not allowed, for the sake of respect and discretion.

Yet the two collections could not be more distant from each other, placed at opposite extremes of the spectrum.
On one hand, the aseptic showcases, the modern setting from which all emotion is removed, where the Obscene Body (in order to be explained, and accepted by the public) must be filtered through a detached, scientific gaze. The same Museum which, ironically, has to deal with the lack of ethics of its founders, who lived in a time when collecting anatomical specimens posed very little moral dilemmas.
On the other, this oasis of meditation, a personal vision of human beings and their impermanence enclosed in the warm, dark wood of Jane Wildgoose’s old library; a place where compassion is not only tangible, it gets under your skin; a place which can only exist because of its creator’s ethical concerns. And, ultimately, a research facility addressing death as an essential experience we should not be afraid of: it’s no accident the library is dedicated to Persephone because, as Jane pointed out, there’s “no winter without summer“.

Perhaps we need both opposites, as we would with two different medicines. To study the body without forgetting about the soul, and viceversa.
On the express train back to the airport, I stared at a clear sky between the passing trees. Not a single cloud in sight. No rain without sun, I told myself. And so much for the preconceptions I held at the beginning of my journey.


Articolo a cura del nostro inviato speciale a Londra, il guestblogger ipnosarcoma.

Benvenuti a quella che sarà la prima puntata di una lunga serie che è probabilmente già finita con questo articolo. Il titolo di questa non-rubrica si riferisce alla volontà di sondare in profondità le pareti interne dell’apparato digerente di Londra, al fine di verificarne eventuali masse tumorali.

Per questa puntata di una serie nata morta, andremo a esplorare le cavità del borough di Hackney, nell’East End. In particolare, dietro segnalazione di una persona dalla dubbia moralità (moralità? non offendiamo. NdR), mi accingerò a parlarvi di una piccola bottega degli orrori e delle meraviglie situata al numero 11 di Mare Street, a metà strada tra le stazioni di Hackney Central e Bethnal Green, ai confini quindi con il borough di Tower Hamlets.



Il posto si chiama “The Last Tuesday Society”. Sulla vetrata dell’ingresso si può leggere: Those easily offended by death and decay should stay away . Hanno ragione. Se non vi piace vedere la morte e la decomposizione della materia organica dovreste tenervene alla larga e rimanere a casa. A vedere a ripetizione Cannibal Holocaust. Appena sotto una targhetta recita: This is not a brothel, there are no prostitutes at this address (“Questo non è un bordello, non ci sono prostitute a questo indirizzo”). Lo stesso avvertimento che si poteva leggere sulla porta d’ingresso della casa di Sebastian Horsley. Parleremo più avanti di costui. D’accordo, questo cartello diminuisce l’offerta, ma in ogni caso non ci dissuade, la promessa di esplorare un mondo “exotic, erotic & necrotic” è troppo allettante. Entriamo.

L’ingresso (riservato solo ai maggiori di 21 anni) non è gratuito, se si è intenzionati a varcare la soglia del primo spazio, dedicato all’allegro shopping, per accedere all’inconscio collettivo rimosso e riposto con cura nel piccolo museo all’interno. Due pound per entrare e fare qualche misera fotarella di straforo, cinque se vuoi bullarti con gli amici scrivendo un articolo su Bizzarro Bazar e scattare foto a iosa. Pago ed entro. Ne vale la pena.







Le prime cose che rimangono impresse: gli animali impagliati. E non stiamo parlando dei soliti animali impagliati. Parliamo di autentiche iene, orsi, pipistrelli, gatti, cani e uccelli di varie dimensioni e razze. Questo per quanto riguarda gli animali meno inquietanti: basta fare pochi passi per vedere molto di più.








Caprette a due teste. Talpe a due teste. Enormi roditori. Gatti volanti con grandi ali innestate. Teste di varano, di quelli giganti. E altro ancora. Ah, appena scendete le scale per arrivare alle due sale inferiori, non dimenticate di buttare un occhio (che poi conserveranno amorevolmente sotto formalina) al reparto delle offerte: in questo periodo hanno una selezione di pellicce scontate al 50%. Dopodiché, potrete tranquillamente usare la vostra tessera di Greenpeace come stuzzicadenti, per togliervi dalle gengive quei fastidiosi rimasugli di carne animale.


P1000331ù P1000284


Fra fenicotteri, teschi di uccelli di specie varie, ossi fossili d’orso (autenticati, a quanto dicono), tartarughe e armadilli, teste umane mozze e insanguinate (finte, mica sono pervertiti qui) che non trovereste neanche nel cassetto delle mutande di Tom Savini, e serpenti conservati in barattoli di marmellata, si arriva ad autentiche chicche del posto.









Ad esempio, i cimeli legati alla controversa figura del succitato, sovraeccitato, Sebastian Horsley, al quale dedicherò un articolo che comparirà su Donna Moderna di un mese qualsiasi. Artista perverso e controverso, noto puttaniere orgoglioso di ciò, a sua volta collezionista di stravaganze da tutto il mondo, sperimentatore di un’autentica crocefissione senza ricorrere a nessun genere di anestetico, morto di overdose di speedball. Qui abbiamo l’onore di poter vedere diversi oggetti a lui appartenuti come, ad esempio, le sue scarpe vittoriane, i suoi occhiali da sole psichedelici color rapa rossa, e la siringa con cui si è iniettato la dose che lo ha portato alla morte nel suo appartamento a Soho. Pace all’anima sua, se mai ne ha avuta una. Ma andiamo avanti.




In un’altra vetrina possiamo ammirare un autentico baculum di tricheco, che poi non è altro che l’osso del pene del suddetto animale. Se volete potete acquistarlo: niente dice “ti amo” come un articolo degenere del genere, anche se, ahimè, San Valentino è ormai passato.





Non lontano entriamo nel campo del mito: preziosamente incorniciato, possiamo ammirare il dito indice mummificato di Pancho Villa. La leggenda vuole che la sua testa sia stata trafugata dalla tomba da un certo Capitano Emil L. Holmdahl per venderla a un eccentrico milionario. Già che c’erano, al noto rivoluzionario è stato asportato un dito, a lungo usato dalla popolazione messicana come reliquia. Un po’ come il Sacro Prepuzio di Gesù, sul quale non mi dilungherò per riverenza e per necessità di sintesi (e perché ne abbiamo già parlato in questo articolo, NdR).





D’accordo, mi fermo qui, molte cose le vedrete nelle foto, altre vi invito ad andare a vederle di persona quando visiterete Londra. Da segnalare alcuni preziosi libri che si possono ammirare, fra i quali ho il piacere di ricordare: Oral sadism and the vegetarian personality, What to say when you talk to your self e Sex instructions for Irish farmers, il quale però, con mio disappunto, si riferisce al sesso fra gli animali e non con il fattore – niente romanticismi alla Vase de noche, meglio conosciuto ai fan come The pig fucking movie. Altre chicche da non perdere: la cacca in barattolo di alcune celebrità (sono aperte le donazioni), fra cui quella di Kylie Minogue e niente meno che quella di Amy Winehouse, che pare aver raggiunto ora quotazioni da capogiro. Avrete il coraggio di esaminarne l’autenticità?


Ma il reperto per me più commovente è il foglio firmato da Maria de Silva. Sono sicuro che non ne avrete sentito parlare, perché probabilmente anche i suoi parenti faranno fatica a ricordarsi di lei. Maria è (era?) l’inserviente presso un certo Hill Club, e ci ha rilasciato una dichiarazione autografa che recita, in calligrafia tremolante: “Io, Maria de Silva, ho lavorato al Hill Club il 22 Agosto 2003, ho pulito la stanza usata dai Rolling Stones e ho trovato questi preservativi e questo Viagara”. Non Viagra, Viagara. E naturalmente, nella vetrina dedicata, possiamo ammirare il barattolo contenente i preservativi e la confezione di Viagra menzionati. È questo che più ci fa amare questo posto: come nella migliore tradizione delle wunderkammer, dei freakshow e degli exploitation movies che ci hanno fatto battere il cuore quando eravamo adolescenti, non è la veridicità a contare, è il tasto dell’inconscio che viene premuto. Consigliato a tutti i lettori di Bizzarro Bazar. Ricordatevi, però, che il negozio è aperto esclusivamente di sabato, dalle 12 alle 19, oppure su appuntamento. Per i dettagli vi rimando al sito ufficiale.