Tuesday 29 July 2014

Read and be thankful

You're not seeing these photos. You may wish you couldn't for real - but please pretend you haven't seen them. I wasn't meant to take them, though I didn't see the sign until afterwards. I could of course have deleted them; but this was such an astonishing place, I wanted to have at least a bit of a record. I took them on my last day in Bangkok at the Museum of Anatomy, at the Siriraj Hospital by the river. It's one of the city's less well-known places of interest. Let's not call it a tourist attraction, because it's really part of the teaching hospital's resources; and as it's upstairs in a hard-to-find building, in a dimly lit room cooled by a series of whirring old fans, the exhibits lined up in glass cases and labelled only in Thai and medical English, it's hardly trying to pull in the foreign visitors.

But it's a grimly fascinating place. Preserved in formaldehyde, dried or stripped are dozens of bodies, many of them twins conjoined in different ways - even one pair sharing an arm but with two hands - as well as skeletons including one over two metres tall and, perhaps less startling but in their way more astonishing, entire teased-out nervous and arterial systems, the threads hanging down from the brain and branching out, in a curiously autumnal fashion. What a feat of painstaking extraction. There are cross-sections through the abdomen at different points, the slabs of muscle and bone looking not unlike something you'd see at the butcher's; and foetuses at all stages of development rather startlingly accompanied by jars of unborn piglets and other unidentifiable animals.

It's truly fascinating - if you're not the squeamish sort - and a real lesson in what a lottery life is, even before it has really begun. There are so many things that can go wrong as our bodies develop, and these were the unlucky ones, born - or not - with horrifying deformities. I understand the rule about photography. They're not a funfair freak show to gawp at for some kind of thrill. They were people, after all; and the babies were wanted, and mourned - they're still treated kindly, gifts of toys and sweets being left beside or on top of their glass cases. And the slogan printed on the unopened box containing a toy helicopter? "Keep Your Dreams Flying". Sad.

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