Operating table under Table Mountain

Did you know that the world’s first heart transplant was performed in Cape Town, South Africa?

Did you also know that there’s a museum devoted to this milestone?

It’s the Heart of Cape Town Museum, located in the exact spot where the transplant was performed at Groote Schuur Hospital. Situated in the Observatory neighborhood of greater Cape Town, it sits beneath Table Mountain, the iconic symbol of the city, that’s also been incorporated into the museum’s logo.

The edge of Table Mountain

A few months ago, I paid my very first visit to the museum. For any TransplantInformer, this is definitely a must-see if you are lucky enough to find yourself in Cape Town. That shot above was taken from the City Sightseeing double decker bus tour in Cape Town, and ticketholders get free shuttle service to the museum!

The museum experience is best done with a guided tour that runs every 2 hours. You are escorted by a friendly docent, who takes you through the entire exhibit. On my visit, she spent much of her time handling a huge group of adolescents on a field trip. I can’t say what it is like on a slower day, but my appraisal of it all had increased entertainment value due to all the inquisitive, jostling, and occasionally squeamish kids.

Funnily enough, though some parts of the museum are perhaps not for the faint of heart, our guide reassured us and the young man who was rather shaken by the sight of an open chest with a beating heart, that Christiaan Barnard, the surgeon who performed the transplant actually fainted himself at the site of blood in his earlier days. They too, could have a career in medicine, squeamishness be damned.

In fact, the most graphic it gets are the two different films at the outset which preface the tour; one about experiments leading up to the historic first transplant, including operations on dogs. And then a mini filmic biography of Barnard.

Much of the exhibited material is an homage to the personality of Chris Barnard. Part of the museum is a showcase for his numerous accolades, awards, and notable correspondence.

Seeing schoolchildren learning about transplantation in a museum environment was an entirely different experience as well. Children often ask basic questions, things that  get taken for granted when raising awareness in adult populations. And while the museum is not the most kid-friendly, nor is it on the cutting edge of museum display, the use of the museum space and aesthetic to evoke discussion and educate about heart transplantation was refreshing, and an approach we might consider utilizing more often.

If you visit, be prepared for some “life size silicone models.” There’s one of Barnard at work in his office, and the first recipient in his bed post-surgery, as well as both operating rooms on the day of the historic transplant, and a dog on whom  preliminary test surgeries were performed.

There is something haunting about this kind of diorama museum that eerily toes the line between life and death. Not only are the operating theatres re-creations, they are inanimate tableau trying to emulate life. With a background in anthropology, I certainly see  museum exhibits, and especially dioramas with that lens, and the Heart of Cape Town Transplant Museum falls under that purview. In its memorialization of Chris Barnard, as well as Denise Darvall‘s room, there are shrine-like qualities.

In fact, like a temple to a transplantation deity, the recreation of Darvall’s bedroom has framed letters of thanks to her family, a fancy dress that was posthumously commissioned  from her  personal sketches, and copies of what were believed to be her favorite books and LP’s. Her old doll is even on the bed. Ask the tour guide for a wonderful ghost story about it!

And on my visit, there was a planned power outage to test the hospital generators, since the museum is still attached to the working hospital.  Of course the lights went out, right as we were looking at the actual heart preserved in formaldehyde, and the rest of the tour was in semi-darkness. Albeit foreseen, the dim lighting only added to the haunting atmosphere.

That touch of the macabre, the shrine-ishness, the observation of surgery as ritual, the performance of a procedure in an operating theatre; all these elements stir up a feeling of mysticism and drama. And yet, at the same moment, the museum also celebrates a medical breakthrough, an achievement of science and technology, and a rational man whose response to those transplant detractors worried about emotional matters of the heart was  that it is “merely a primitive pump.”

I highly encourage you to enjoy the delights of the Heart of Cape Town Museum. For the transplant enthusiast, for the wunderkammer wanderer, for the curious mind, and the medical history tourist this is a definite destination.

Plus, when you’re done at the museum, in just a ten minute walk you can go from the King of Hearts to the Queen of Tarts.

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3 Responses to “Operating table under Table Mountain”
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    1. […] concerned with ways that people are socialized to  perceive their organs. Interestingly enough,  Dr. Chris Barnard’s views about the heart and the world’s first transplant, which we recently covered, stand in direct opposition to other South African views of the heart, […]

    2. […] in London entitled Heart to Heart. There is some talk of Christiaan Barnard, the doctor to perform the world’s first successful human heart transplant, and placing the development–and hindrance–or transplantation in socio-historical […]

    3. […] museums and scientific entertainment. Some of you may have gathered this from coverage on the Heart of Cape Town Transplant Museum. One of our recent news roundups featured a talk about the unexpected history of blood transfusion. […]



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