Robert Gretton finds the anaesthetic-free operations at the Thackray Medical Museum are just what Victorian doctors ordered
Our endless fascination with medical melodrama has been astutely milked by television programmers. Hardly an evening passes without blood being shed on an operating table. Less well-known is why this obsession has not been exploited by museums or schools.
There are medical history venues such as the Old Operating Theatre near Guy's Hospital and the Hunterian Museum in the Royal College of Surgeons building at Lincoln's Inn Fields - both in London. But, although these are open to the public, theyare principally for professional training and research purposes.
At Easter, the opening of Thackray Medical Museum in Leeds marked a pioneering attempt to tell the story, through the eyes of ordinary people, of how we used to live, work and die, and to understand how medicine and its practitioners have enabled us, at the end of the 20th century, to live some 50 years longer than our forbears did in the 1800s.
This involves graphic and sometimes stomach-churning displays of what early Victorian life was like in the homes, streets and workplaces of an industrial city such as Leeds. These are housed in the former Leeds Union Workhouse, which is owned by St James's Hospital (known as Jimmy's), conveniently situated next door.
Although the museum has been designed for the ordinary visitor, the Thackray Charitable Trust - which operates it - takes its educational role seriously. The newly- converted Victorian workhouse has a built-in education centre and a suite of four classrooms for use by school groups.
While many of the displays are dramatically interactive and have a direct appeal to the senses of sound, sight and smell, they have also been designed to mesh with the national curriculum, covering the subjects of history, science, social studies, art and English.
At the official opening, Dr Robert Anderson, director of the British Museum, said: "Medical history's impact on people's lives is not well represented in Britain. I am delighted to see the Thackray Medical Museum filling thisgap in such an exciting but professional way."
One can see what he means in the museum's realistic reconstruction of an 1840s street scene. Gas-lamps barely illuminate the cobbles, which wend their way past open sewers where you can hear buckets of excrement being jettisoned from windows, see inside filthy butcher's shops and watch the rats in the eaves of disgustingly dirty kitchens.
The museum allows little escape from the message that life in the last century was hard, brutal and short, a long way from the image spread by the television adaptations of Jane Austen.
Another display entitled "Pain, pus and blood" recreates an event from 1842 more vividly than many visitors would wish. In it, an 11-year-old mill girl has broken both her legs in an accident at work. One becomes gangrenous and, in a realistic reconstruction of a Victorian operating theatre, a video depicts her undergoing the terrifying trauma of a leg amputation without anaesthetic. The surgeon is seen describing to his students what he is going to do, right up to the moment when he starts sawing the girl's leg off.
Some teachers or parents might want to heed a discreet notice posted outside this display, warning of the potentially upsetting content of the video. Others, with older and more robust pupils or children, might find the genuinely shocking reality of it both instructive and memorable.
Another theme that is imaginatively explored is "Having a baby". This examines the role of fathers in childbirth through the ages and at the changing size of families.
Particularly interesting is a more recent artefact called an "empathy belly", which dates from the swinging '60s when it was fashionable for men to empathise with their partner's every life experience. It is a heavily padded and weighted coat, designed to help fathers or wannabe-dads feel what it was like to be pregnant. Whether teenage boys could be persuaded to try this out for size in front of their contemporaries would be seen as a challenging opportunity for some teachers, or as inadvisable by others.
Printed background resources are promised to support national curriculum study from key stages 1 to 4 in a variety of areas including Victorian Britain, family life, public health and medicine and medicine through time. The museum commissioned a working teacher to write the resource packs which, in addition to other materials, have suggestions for investigative activities that can be carried out by children with varied levels of ability.
Mike Cooper, the museum's chief executive, says of the Thackray's approach: "It seems that medicine has never occupied the public's mind as much as now. TV medical dramas and documentaries steal many of the top ratings. We hope we've reflected some of the popular approach to medicine and made the subject interesting, easy to understand and fun for ordinary people."
The Thackray Medical Museum, Beckett Street, Leeds LS9 6LN. Tel: 0113 244 4343. Open 10am to 5.30pm every day except Christmas, Boxing and New Year's Day. It has a shop called The Medical Store where you can buy gifts - many of them developed from the museum's exhibits - and a restaurant geared to serving school parties or family groups. Entrance costs: adults Pounds 3.95, children Pounds 2.75; family tickets Pounds 10.75; concessions for groups and students available.