I first met the vivacious Carla Valentine at a crime event at the British Library. The ever-lovely Laura Wilson (A Capital Crime, Stratton’s War) aside, she was by far the brightest thing on a stage of mostly dressed-down middle-aged men (me, Mark Billingham, Barry Forshaw) and also managed to captivate the audience with statements such as: ‘I’ve always been interested in death’.
This utterance was in response to a question from Barry, asking how she had come to advise on TV shows such as Silent Witness and films like Resident Evil.
Fascinating though that is, her day job is equally intriguing. She is the Technical Assistant Curator at St Bartholomew’s Pathology Museum. Her domain is a stunningly dramatic Victorian room, an open space with three galleries or mezzanine levels, topped off with a vaulted glass roof. On the shelves that line this hall are endless jars of specimens, dating back to the 18th century, of everything from a ravaged scrotum (a cancer known as chimney sweep’s disease) to various foreign bodies pulled out of people (you’ll have to find out where the artillery shell was found and what it was doing there for yourself). The museum’s original purpose was as a teaching aid for training doctors in the various pathologies of the human body; Carla’s role is to conserve and re-catalogue the collection, which had been sorely neglected over the years.
Her crowded office was believed to be where Arthur Conan Doyle once wrote and as any Sherlock Holes fan knows, St Bart’s is where Watson and Holmes first meet (in the disused Path building next door to the museum) in A Study in Scarlet. When I visited, Dr Lucy Worsley, she of the cardigans and hairclips and troublesome Rs (which she winningly talks about on her blog – http://www.lucyworsley.com/blog/) was filming a BBC documentary in the main room, so Carla took me up to her work space, which some might think a Little Workshop of Horrors, full of glass and plastic jars housing organs in various stages of repair and conservation.
Personally, I loved it –I used to be a biologist back when DNA was still an exciting new discovery – but there was one item that fascinated me more even than that Sherlock Holmes link. In one cylindrical jar stood a homunculus, just shy of a foot high, which appeared to be Not Of This Earth. In fact, it looked like the sort of model WETA Studios might make for an orc-like being in Lord of the Rings – imagine the Creature from the Black Lagoon shrunk to a seventh of its size. Carla has no idea who ‘he’ is or where he came from or how he was created, as the label has long gone (and yes, it has crossed my mind that it was a hoax to humiliate gullible people like me). He has a nickname, “Troll Boy”, and, although I would love to show you a picture, the Human Tissue Authority (yes, really) might take a dim view if it is a humanoid less than 100 years old.
Sadly, Troll Boy isn’t on display in the main gallery, but even if he was, the museum isn’t open to the public. However, Carla curates a variety of events, including taxidermy courses, lectures on surgery, pathology and medicine and ‘skull art’ workshops a la Damien Hirst – see http://www.facebook.com/bartspathologymuseum. She is also running a blog with more information on the collection, its past, present and future: http://potts-pots.blogspot.co.uk/. So if you want to see the soaring inside of the building and those endlessly fascinating specimens, book in to one of the events – there is one featuring Dr Watson (and me) coming up in November, details follow – but plenty before that, too.