Sydney’s Museum of Human Disease has opened its doors to the public, allowing visitors to view a Pandora’s box of plague, pestilence and disease in graphic detail.
Previously used as a resource for medical students at the University of New South Wales, the museum has more than 2,000 cadaver parts on display illustrating all manner of ailments afflicting the human body.
Located in the tranquil surrounds of the university campus in Sydney’s leafy eastern suburbs, the museum is not a place for the squeamish.
A blackened smoker’s lung sits opposite a nectrotic ulcer the size of a cricket ball, while in one perspex display case lies a misshapen knee labeled “gouty arthritis.”
Nearby, two disembodied white thumbs are set against a dark background in an exhibit that looks like a macabre parody of the “thumbs up” gesture.
Some of the illnesses displayed would be unfamiliar to those without a medical background, such as a nodular goiter and a gangrenous foot showing the impact of the blood-clotting condition Buergers’ Disease.
Others are all too common, including the museum’s “specimen of the week,” an egg-shaped breast cancer.
Curator Robert Lansdown admits the museum is confrontational but says it is a powerful educational tool, allowing the public to see first-hand how lifestyle choices such as smoking and eating fatty foods can affect the body.
“You only have to read the histories associated with some of the displays to see that this person was a smoker, or they were overweight,” Lansdown said. “People get a real appreciation of that when they come here.”
“They often only think about how their skin changes because it’s external, they don’t think about other organs, but over the course of someone’s lifetime they change a lot,” he said. “Your diet, drinking and exercise habits make a real difference, and that’s what people can see here.”
Lansdown said the museum was careful to treat the displays with respect, bearing in mind that they were once part of living human beings and should not be used for lurid entertainment.
“It’s obviously still extraordinary, confronting and graphic for people but it’s done in a way that gives them the opportunity to learn,” he said.
Visitors to the museum are given a set of headphones attached to a device that allows them to access recordings of pathologists discussing the exhibits on display.
Lansdown, a high school science teacher before he took over the collection three years ago, said most of the visitors since the museum opened to the public a few weeks ago had been older people.
“It’s perhaps because they’ve had more exposure to diseases and they may know somebody suffering from one of these conditions,” he said. “Although it’s quite upsetting initially, they then can understand it better.”
“For the general public, and also for pathologists and doctors, the best way to learn about these things is to see them,” Lansdown said.
He said one man recently came in who was suffering asbestosis, an irreversible lung-scarring disease caused by exposure to asbestos dust.
While the man was familiar with the symptoms and cause of the disease, he simply wanted to see what was occurring inside his body, Lansdown said.
He said some visitors became queasy and the groups of senior high school students who regularly arrived for guided tours often responded with initial comments such as “gross” and “disgusting.”