New App Lets You Virtually Visit a Famous Anatomy Museum

University of Edinburgh’s Anatomical Collections
University of Edinburgh’s Anatomical Collections / University of Edinburgh’s Anatomical Collections

For some people, the height of smartphone enjoyment involves a rousing game of Bejeweled Blitz. For others, it’s zooming in on famous skulls. If you're in the latter category, a new app from the University of Edinburgh Anatomical Museum is definitely worth a look.

Medicine might not be the first thing you think when you think of Edinburgh, but it should be: The University of Edinburgh Medical School is one of the oldest and most prestigious in the English-speaking world. For centuries, wannabe doctors and surgeons flocked there in part because of the school's focus on hands-on learning, which meant learning from corpses instead of from textbooks. While that might not sound so revolutionary now, it was pretty notable in the 18th century. Many of the first doctors employed in what's now known as the United States cut up their first cadaver in the anatomy theaters of Edinburgh. (Rumor has it the school once went through so many bodies that bringing your own got you a discount on tuition.)

The University of Edinburgh Anatomical Museum preserves thousands of treasures from that storied—if blood-spattered—history, but it's only open to the public one day a month. As of today, you can skip the plane fare and partake of a new app that offers a 360-degree tour of the museum's hallowed halls, including its archives, lecture theater, morgue, art-filled foyer flanked by elephant skeletons, "skull room," and more. Highlights include the artists flat, a space perched above the anatomy laboratories and once used by artists, set up to look as it might have in the 1880s (complete with a partially disassembled human leg). The skull room itself features more than 1600 skulls, which were once part of the Edinburgh Phrenological Society’s museum. (That was before we realized phrenology—the reading of head bumps for clues to personality, intelligence, and morals—was about as useful as advanced palmistry.)

You can take a leisurely guided tour, or go at your own pace, scrolling around and clicking on items—Charles Darwin’s attendance cards, the skeleton of famous bodysnatcher/murderer William Burke, a preserved small intestine. By the end, you’ll have learned about the collecting habits of 19th century anatomists, the making of life and death masks, political intrigues from the school’s past ventilation systems in morgues, and far more.

According to the app's narration, there's talk of moving the Anatomy Museum to a new space. This experience preserves its slightly antiquated wonder—thanks to the best of 21st century technology. You can download it for free on iTunes for iOs or Google Play for Android, and check out some screenshots below.

Phrenological tools from the 19th century. The Anatomical Museum includes the collection of the Edinburgh Phrenological Society.

The skeleton of notorious bodysnatcher William Burke.

All images courtesy of University of Edinburgh's Anatomical Collections.