In London on a weekday with time to spare, I decided to head to the BDA Dental Museum, a small museum located in the headquarters of the British Dental Association not far from Oxford Street. The museum aims to explore the history of dental care in the UK, and has over 20,000 items, making it the largest collection of dentistry-related material in the UK.
I owe a great deal to dentists – I spent a great deal of time at the dentist’s and the orthodontist’s as a teenager, as I had an extremely awkward set of teeth that insisted on growing on top of each other in a mouth that was really too small for all of them – a bit like an Underground train during rush hour, except that Tube trains don’t tend to get random commuters popping out of the roof. I spent three years with a fixed brace but ended up with normal straight teeth, so it was worth it. After visiting this museum, I am even more thankful that I was not born a hundred or more years ago when dentistry was in its infancy.
The Museum began in 1919 with a collection of dental instruments donated by Lilian Lindsay, the first woman to qualify as a dentist in the UK. These days, the collections comprise photographs and archives, art, furniture and a variety of dental instruments and equipment. Originally designed specifically for BDA members, it was opened to the public in 1967 and redesigned in 2005.
The museum is small, consisting of one main room plus a handful of display cases in the foyer of the BDA itself and in the basement. When I visited, the basement display consisted of information about dentistry during World War I: dentistry was not classed as a reserved occupation, despite the fact that dental health was considered important for all-round health. Upstairs, the foyer displays were concerned with the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, looking at the fact that many dentures were made from the teeth of soldiers who died in the battle.
The permanent museum, which traces the history of dentistry as a distinct profession, can be found in the small room on the left as you enter the BDA building. It has interesting displays with accompanying information boards, exploring the treatments people used for dental ailments in centuries past and the eventual establishment of the BDA, which ensured recognition of the dental profession. During the nineteenth century in particular, anaesthetics were introduced, new instruments were invented (such as drills) and materials used to make dentures were improved. I was interested to see the different kinds of drills on display as well as the rather posh red upholstered dental chair, though I’d still rather have the stark, slightly boring decor of a modern dentist’s surgery with all the modern treatments that it entails! One particular character mentioned several times was John Tomes (1815–1895) – he was instrumental in transforming dentistry from a trade to a respected profession, and with James Smith Turner was responsible for the Dentists Act 1878, which ensured the registration of dental professionals.
There are a couple of screens on which you can view old, rather amusing dental videos. There is also a tiny gift shop, where you can buy things such as tooth-shaped push pins and toothpaste keyrings.
With its odd opening hours, small size and specialist collection, The BDA Dental Museum is unlikely to be anyone’s first choice for a museum visit, but if you are in the area at the right time I’d urge you to go. If nothing else it will give you an appreciation for modern dentistry!
Address: British Dental Association, 64 Wimpole Street, London, W1G 8YS
Opening Hours: Tuesdays and Thursdays 1pm-4pm