Exquisite Bodies, Wellcome Collection, London

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The Independent Culture

Exquisite Bodies may be the name of a surrealist game of figure drawing, but stark, staring realism confronts us in this show of anatomical models. The subject is now a theme of art (Damien Hirst) and family fun (Gunther von Hagens), but the Wellcome Collection is still treading warily – for the first time, it bars admission to those under 18, though Von Hagens' next spectacle is open to all (the under-fives get in free).

Unlike those hardy five-year-olds, I tend to hide my eyes, whimper, and faint at the sight of human offal, but the blows to my nervous system were padded by the artistic and scientific interest of the exhibits.

They formed part of a popular museum that, from 1900 to 1935, showed visitors to the red-light district of Barcelona what could result from patronising its other establishments. One wax model of diseased female pudenda is framed with peach silk underwear; another includes a pair of hands that spread the labia for closer study.

This combination of education and sensation characterised anatomy displays in the 18th and 19th century. Along with deterring "diseases of imprudence", they were seen as providing, in the words of one showman, "an unassailable argument against atheism" to those contemplating the intricate miracle of human machinery, two worthy purposes wittily echoed by the decor, a Victorian exhibition hall, deep blue with red curtains. In the early models, the loving treatment of breasts and facial features show the craftsmen's desire to create an ideal beauty to counter the messy reality within. Later the corpses became more realistic – an opened late-19th-century cadaver, heavily pregnant, could have been dragged from the Thames.

The show's hero is Joseph Towne (1806-1879), whose models, made at Guy's hospital, are still used by medical students today. His artistry can best be seen in a wax image of a man who has been cut in half – and, judging by his expression, while alive, his head thrown back, the howling mouth containing only two, broken teeth.

This is a work which stimulates pity for its object, as well as wonder at the skill of its human maker. I am sorry though that the admission policy prevents so many from seeing these fascinating things.

To 18 October (020-7611 2222; www.wellcomecollection.org)