The unusual Edinburgh museums most locals won’t have visited

Anatomical Museum, Teviot Place. Picture: Contributed
Anatomical Museum, Teviot Place. Picture: Contributed
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Edinburgh is well known for its macabre history, and one museum in particular focuses on this gruesome past.

But the small museum is relatively unknown, and it’s hiding some of the city’s most intriguing specimens.

Trinity House in the Kirkgate. Picture: Callum Bennetts

Trinity House in the Kirkgate. Picture: Callum Bennetts

The Anatomical Museum, which is part of the University of Edinburgh, is only open to the public on the last Saturday of every month (excluding June and July).

It’s hidden away within the Medical School building on Teviot Place, up six flights of stairs, so it’s easy to miss.

But those who manage to find their way in will be rewarded with a fascinating collection of more than 12,000 objects, all relating to human and animal anatomy.

Establishing the Medical School

People's Story Museum on Royal Mile. Picture: TSPL

People's Story Museum on Royal Mile. Picture: TSPL

The Edinburgh Medical School was established in 1726, and was originally located in Old College on South Bridge.

But as the University’s reputation as a world-class institution for the study of medicine grew, student numbers increased and a purpose-built medical school had to be opened.

The Medical School on Teviot Place opened in 1880, and the new Anatomical Museum was unveiled a few years later in 1884.

But the core collection of specimens dates much further back than this.

The National War Museum is based at Edinburgh Castle. Picture: TSPL

The National War Museum is based at Edinburgh Castle. Picture: TSPL

In 1798 Professor Alexander Munro (who was part of the famous Munro dynasty of distinguished medical professors) donated much of his and his father’s personal collections to the Department of Anatomy.

The collection expanded greatly thanks to the work of subsequent Professors of Anatomy, particularly Sir William Turner who was both Professor of Anatomy from 1867 to 1903 and Principal of the University from 1903 to 1917.

Unusual and macabre artefacts

The bulk of the museum’s collection is made up of objects which relate to the teaching of anatomy and medicine – such as etchings of dissections, anatomical models, skeletal remains and specimens preserved in jars.

Perhaps the most infamous object in the museum is one which relates to the case of body-snatching murderers, Burke and Hare.

READ MORE: Burke and Hare: The grisly tale of Edinburgh serial killers

Burke and Hare murdered 16 people in 1820s Edinburgh and sold their bodies to anatomy teacher, Dr Robert Knox, as there was a shortage of bodies to dissect.

In an ironic twist, William Burke suffered the same fate as his victims.

He was publicly dissected after he was found guilty of murder, and now his skeleton is displayed in the Anatomical Museum.

The collection also includes the skeleton of John Howison, also known as the Cramond Murderer, who was the last body to be given to the university for dissection before the Anatomy Act of 1832 put a stop to the tradition.

Howison (who was hanged after murdering an elderly woman with a spade) pleaded insanity, but this was dismissed by doctors at the time.

However, more recently it’s been suggested he was suffering from a ‘textbook’ case of paranoid schizophrenia.

Elsewhere in the Anatomical Museum, visitors can see the death masks of notable scientists, politicians and writers, such as Sir Walter Scott and Sir Isaac Newton.

More unusual and lesser-known museums in Edinburgh James Clerk Maxwell Foundation Opened in 1977, this museum is located inside James Clerk Maxwell’s birthplace and former home at 14 India Street.

One of the 19th century’s leading physicists and mathematicians, Maxwell’s theory of electricity and magnetism led to the development of radio, television, mobile phones and many other modern technologies.

READ MORE: Lost Edinburgh: James Clerk Maxwell

The museum tells the story of Maxwell’s life, through collections of books, manuscripts, artwork and furniture.

One of the most interesting exhibits is a chair which he studied from as a teenager, which was later embroidered by his aunt to illustrate the wave theory of light.

The People’s Story

This small museum on the Royal Mile explores the history of ordinary working class people in Edinburgh.

The People’s Story is located within the old Canongate Tolbooth, which was used as a burgh courthouse and jail from 1591.

Covering a period of approximately 300 years, the museum’s exhibits include everything from a replica 19th century bookbinder’s workshop to items relating to subcultures from the 1980s, such as punks, football fans and the LGBT+ community.

Trinity House

Trinity House was once a guild hall, customs house and centre for maritime administration, and now it’s a unique museum exploring the maritime history of Leith.

All kinds of memorabilia can be found in the museum, including narwhal tusks, naval portraits by Sir Henry Raeburn, navigational instruments and original Georgian fixtures and furniture from Trinity House’s former life.

Library of Mistakes

Accessible by appointment only, the Library of Mistakes is a small museum and library dedicated economics and finance.

Inspired by the economic crash of 2008, the library’s creators wanted to compile a collection of literature to help the next generation of economists avoid making the same mistakes again.

Located at Wemyss Place Mews, the small library is packed with over 2,000 books which discuss the economies of just about every country on the planet.

The Library of Mistakes welcomes scholars, researchers and professionals as well as amateur enthusiasts and members of the public.

National War Museum

Often overshadowed by its more famous sister institution, the National Museum of Scotland, the National War Museum is hidden away within Edinburgh Castle.

The museum tells the story of Scotland at war, with fascinating military artefacts on display, as well as personal items and recollections from soldiers and stories of some of Scotland’s most famous battles.

• This article originally appeared in our sister title, the iNews.