Wow. I’d heard that the Songkran Niyomsane Forensic Medicine Museum at Bangkok’s Siriraj Hospital was gruesome, but I didn’t expect it to be this gruesome. The moment I entered it, I saw that the wall on my right sported a gallery of grisly photographs, showing the victims of various types of killings and fatal accidents. The captions for the photographs explained the manner of death in brief and blunt English: ‘multiple propeller cuts’, ‘car accident’, ‘train accident’, ‘blast force injuries’, ‘throat cut by broken beer bottle’, ‘crush injuries by machine’, ‘blast force injuries (hand grenade)’, ‘gunshot wounds’ and the indelicately phrased ‘chop wound by axe’. One photograph showing a corpse deeply imprinted with the tread-pattern from a car’s wheels bore the helpful caption, ‘tyre marks’. No shit, Sherlock.
Mind you, after passing that initial gallery of horrors, many exhibits further inside the museum didn’t seem so grotesque. There were cases containing severed limbs, fractured skulls, shrivelled and blackened smokers’ lungs, organs ruptured by accidents, stab-wounds and gunshots, and hands and feet mangled and crushed in accidents; but those things you’ll see in medical museums elsewhere in the world too.
Obviously, much of the forensic work done at Siriraj Hospital relates to crime, but not all of it. Part of the museum is dedicated to the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, which devastated several southern Asian countries, including Thailand. Within a seven-day period after the tsunami, a team of forensic experts from Siriraj processed 1011 ‘cases’ – i.e. dead bodies that, to be identified, had to have their distinguishing features recorded and catalogued. A year later, the statistics for Thailand’s tsunami victims were as follows: a total of 3777 people had died, 2779 of the bodies had been identified and released to relatives, and a remaining 998 bodies remained unidentified and were classified as ‘pending for antemortem information’.
Located beyond the tsunami section are the museum’s most infamous exhibits (according to the travel-guide and blog entries I’ve read about it). Not only is there a case containing the clothes taken from the body of a female murder-victim – skirt, top, underwear – but there are also four mummified and ghoulish-looking corpses standing on display. I assume all four are the remains of executed criminals. A panel beside one of them explains that, alive, he’d been a ‘rape-murderer with (a) death sentence’.
Actually, the Forensic Medicine Museum is one of a trio of museums huddling together on the first floor of a modern hospital building, behind a reception counter where you buy a single ticket for entry to all three. On one side of it is the Ellis Pathological Museum, whose contents include an iron lung manufactured by the ‘J.H. Emerson Company’ of ‘Cambridge, Massachusetts’, which looks like a Jules Verne-esque steampunk contraption; a round, futuristic-looking room dedicated to the human heart; and a display of ‘congenital abnormalities’, such as conjoined twins and babies suffering from mermaid syndrome (where the legs are fused together) and gastroschism (where the digestive tract ends up outside the body).
On the other side is the Parasitology Museum. This, as its name suggests, is dedicated to the icky, at times horrifying creatures that make a home for themselves inside human and animal bodies: liver, blood and intestinal flukes, beef and pork tapeworms, hookworms, pinworms, roundworms and filariasis, the cause of elephantiasis. One grotesque exhibit showing the potential damage wreaked by the last of these, filariasis, is a scrotum removed from an elephantiasis victim, swollen to a diameter of 75 centimetres. But even that is less stomach-churning than a photograph of a specimen of asceris lumbricoides – roundworm – being extracted from somebody’s anus.
Siriraj Hospital is home to a few other museums, but we had time to visit only one of those – the Congdon’s Anatomical Museum on the third floor of an older building, up a broad wooden staircase that looks like it belongs in Castle Dracula. Established by Professor E.D. Congdon, the ‘father of modern teaching of anatomy in Thailand’, this consists of two large rooms. The first one is mainly concerned with bones and its most striking feature is a row of nine adult skeletons along a rear wall, standing upright inside glass cabinets like guards in sentry boxes. Seven of the cabinets have framed photographs of people perched on top, presumably portraits of the skeletons’ donors. One skeleton even has flowers arranged around its bony feet, giving the floor of its cabinet the look of a shrine.
The exhibits in the other room include the following, yummy things: two partly-dissected adult cadavers; four partly-skinned and dissected human heads, showing nerves, facial muscles, facial vessels and the inside of the brain; hearts and their surrounding vessels, so tangled that they that resemble giant ginseng roots; a human torso cut up Damian Hirst-style into a series of slices; and four cases that each contain an entire internal human system, i.e. the skeleton, the muscles and ‘superficial veins’, the arterial and circulatory system, and the nervous system with the brain at the top and a web of nerves sprawling out below. That last display is devoid of human form and almost resembles a Christmas tree.
It must be said that many of the exhibits here, like the building itself, look like they’ve seen better times. They have a grey, fusty, putty-like texture. It wouldn’t have surprised me if, had I been able to reach into their cases and touch them, my fingers had encountered a thin, wispy layer of fur growing on them.
The most unnerving thing about this museum, though, is the number of foetus, baby and infant cadavers on show. Clearly, at the time when this institution was founded, infant mortality was high and life generally was cheap in Thailand. Embryos floating in jars of fluid are often attached umbilically to removed segments of wombs, suggesting they were taken from women who’d died during pregnancy. And there are a lot of conjoined twins displayed here, along with much information about the various possible forms that conjoining can take – apparently twins can be born as Siamese ones in 13 different ways. (And I assume the reason why there’s such a preoccupation with conjoined twins in this museum is because Thailand lent its former name, Siam, to the condition, thanks to the fame during the 19th century of the joined-at-the-sternum Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker.)
What’s lingered most in my memory about the Anatomical Museum is how some of the cases containing children’s bodies have small toys – dolls, model cars and motorbikes, toy plastic phones and toy animals like ponies, frogs and penguins – arranged on top of them. I suppose this is a Thai Buddhist custom, done to appease the spirits of the deceased children by providing them with something to play with. It gives this gloomy old museum a welcome touch of humanity, though a little sadness and even spookiness too.