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Work Life: Carla Valentine, Medical Museum Curator


Carla Valentine, 31, is technical assistant curator at Barts Pathology Museum in West Smithfield, London. She lives with friends in Shoreditch, east London

“People are taken aback when I tell them what I do. Spending your days surrounded by body parts may seem unusual, but I love my job. The Barts Pathology Museum houses more than 5,000 specimens, from kidneys to whole human heads, which were once used to teach medical students. Since the Seventies, when teaching methods changed, the building has been in a state of disrepair. It’s my job to conserve all the specimens (some of them are hundreds of years old so age has taken its toll) so students can use them and the museum can open to the public.

My alarm goes off at 6am, then I’ll shower and get dressed. I work with preservation fluids, so my clothing needs to be hardy: vintage combat pants or dungarees and big work boots with steel toe-caps (in case I drop the specimen jars on my feet). I’ll have a cup of tea and walk to the museum in Clerkenwell. The museum is like an old Victorian cabinet of curiosities. As well as eyes, hands, feet and lungs, we also have specimens of conjoined twins and other medical oddities. I’ve even got skulls in my office. It’s like something from The Addams Family.

I’ll have a breakfast of porridge or a boiled egg at work (people presume the exhibits would put me off my food, but I spent eight years working in a mortuary so I have developed a strong stomach) before doing a loop of the museum to make sure there are no damaged jars, that the heating is working and that the roof isn’t leaking. The museum was built in 1879 and the ceiling is made of glass – electricity wasn’t commonplace, so a glass roof was needed to let in light. But it means we have a lot of leaks

I’ll then head back to my office and plough through emails. Television companies often ask if they can film here. We also get authors wanting to hold book launches and I’ll even get emails from relatives of people whose body parts are here. They want to come and see them, so I make the necessary arrangements. Then I’ll go to my workshop to work on the jars.

When specimens are prepared, they’re placed in a fixative (like formaldehyde), then a preservative. This is what leaks, so I have developed a system to repair each jar: taking the top off each one, taking out the specimen, cleaning it, replacing the fluid and sealing it again.

The museum isn’t open to the public during the day – hopefully once I’ve repaired all the jars it will be – so often it’s just me, listening to Classic FM surrounded by parts of dead bodies. But it doesn’t spook me. I like being able to get on with things and I find it quite comforting to be surrounded by ‘people’. It helps that I used to be a mortician. Working with bodies has changed my outlook on death. It’s made me a lot more reverent and I believe more in souls now. It’s so different seeing a person when they’re dead; it’s not as if they are just motionless and asleep, something has disappeared, like a spirit or a soul and you can sense that. I think about this a lot when I’m in the museum on my own.

After a few hours in the workshop I’ll head back to the office for lunch before photographing the jars I’ve repaired and loading them onto our website. I’m a third of the way through repairing them all. Each specimen we have comes with a certain amount of data, which we keep catalogued. The other day I cleaned out a lower jawbone, complete with teeth. I looked in the archive and it said it was from a 14-year-old boy from 1898 who fractured his jaw because he got caught in a printing press.

I think people are as obsessed with death now as they were in Victorian times. I often organise spooky-themed evening events, from lectures about bodysnatching and famous murders (complete with themed cocktails and food), to baking classes and taxidermy workshops. They’re really popular and I love getting involved. I’ll finish the event at about 9pm, and if I haven’t already eaten I’ll make something like chilli and have a glass of wine before reading and heading to bed at about 11pm. Luckily, I don’t have nightmares.”




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