Why you should care
Because death can teach us so much about life.
It’s pretty easy to miss Bangkok’s Siriraj Medical Museum, tucked within the Siriraj Hospital, but unless you have a weak stomach, don’t. The museum is actually seven separate ones, some 90 years old, dotted haphazardly around the sprawling grounds of Thailand’s oldest and largest hospital. If you persevere, you’ll soon be tiptoeing through the shared storerooms of Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer, or at least that’s what it feels like.
In a 2014 promotional video for the Bangkok Post, museum curator Kessari Yodkansee offered viewers a family-friendly tour of the newer exhibits, extolling the educational potential and diverse artifacts on show before ending with the promise, “You won’t find a place like this anywhere else.”
She wasn’t lying. Typically, medical museums aim to educate and inform, curated for either the general public or detail-driven medical students. And although the Siriraj museum has parasitology and pathology sections, it’s definitely not the famed Royal London Hospital Museum. The forensic and anatomical sections on the other hand, while short on the artistry of Gunther von Hagens’ “Body Worlds” exhibit, do not fall short in inspiring awe.
The creepy feeling is hard to shake, but it also prompts a reckoning with mortality that’s borderline spiritual.
First, it’s full of cadavers. Which, granted, isn’t so strange for a medical museum. Most are graying fetuses — deformed, diseased, conjoined — floating in stacked jars of formaldehyde. Yet unlike its clean-cut, perhaps more discerning European counterparts, this museum has an ethereal quality due to its age — there’s something more real about the bodies on display. The creepy feeling is hard to shake, but it also prompts a reckoning with mortality that’s borderline spiritual. Some visitors even leave toys and coins beneath the shelves of fetuses, according to Yodkansee, with the belief that “the children’s spirits are still in the museum.”
In another room, the browned body of the infamous Thai serial child-killer and cannibal Zee Oui stands in a glass cabinet, his sunken eyes closed for eternity. Elsewhere, body parts have been band-sawed in half to expose the wondrous intricacies within. Occasionally they’re accompanied by a description, although it’s not exactly hard to identify a “Head and Brain” without the sticker. Another exhibit showcases two adult bodies lying face-up in glass tanks filled with bluish liquid. Both male and female are only partially dissected, seemingly unfinished. Under the refracting light, the man’s eyes almost appear to be opening. I lean in closer and notice that neither tank is full and that condensation is building in one corner. The woman’s toes have broken the liquid’s preserving surface and decayed — a direct confrontation with the fact that this is a real human body and not some plasticized approximation of one.
The scores of bodies can be overwhelming at first, but in the hospital’s early years, Yodkansee says, it was “very difficult to find cadavers to study.” It’s clear that some of those early donations were reverently appreciated: The donor’s name and photo (and even the odd plaster bust) accompany the polished skeleton. What is also clear is that at some point, finding cadavers was no longer a problem. I stopped short of counting, but there were at least 100 bodies or body parts in a single room no larger than two classrooms.
The Siriraj Medical Museum — admission is 200 baht (about $6) for foreigners — is not for the fainthearted. Yet its gruesome shortcomings end up being its greatest asset. With every uncovered eye staring up at you accusingly and every poorly dissected limb exposing the messiness of the human body, the education lies not in the “Oh, so that’s how that works!” but rather in the “Oh, yeah, that’s a real person who once lived.” It’s a reckoning with mortality itself.