Cultures of anatomical collections

A few weeks ago, I attended the conference “Cultures of Anatomical Collections” in Leiden, the Netherlands.  I’m still thinking about and absorbing all the things I learned there.  It was the kind of conference where you are still up at midnight talking about things – in this case, dead bodies, anatomical waxes, anatomical preparations, anatomical models.  Rina Knoeff, who organized the conference, brought in artists, curators, and art historians as well as historians of science, and the interactions among the artists and historians brought new insights to me and I hope to them.  Some highlights included Ruth Richardson’s wonderful piece, “Organ Music,” in which she imagines the long-dead body parts in the London College of Surgeons telling their stories.  I was especially happy to meet Ruth, author of two amazing books: Death, Dissection, and the Destitute, and The Making of Mr Gray’s Anatomy .  She has just come out with a new book on Oliver Twist and workhouse life in Dickens’s London.

There were so many wonderful papers I cannot describe them all.  Just a few highlights would include Rina Knoeff’s paper on Frederik Ruysch (whose bizarre tableaux came up in quite a few other presentations); Anna Maerker on the nineteenth-cen

Cheselden, Osteographia, 1733

tury papier-mâché anatomical models of Dr. Auzoux, which made their way around the world; the artist Lisa Temple-Cox’s account of casting her own head in a wonderful exploration of art, anatomy, and identity; and Alfons Zarzoso and José Pardo Tomás on the wild and wonderful Roca Museum in 1930s Barcelona.

I was sad to hear Kathryn Hoffman’s presentation about the dismantling of the Musée Delmas-Orfila-Rouvière in Paris, an enormous anatomical collection that had occupied the eighth floor of the Paris Medical Faculty’s building on the rue Saint-Pères in the sixth arrondissement in Paris.  When I visited it in 2000, its director Roger Saban had said that the medical school’s administrators wanted the space, and now a decade later they have gotten their wish.  This was an amazing collection that included Paul Broca’s collection of brain casts, dozens of skulls from the nineteenth century, as well as some items by Honoré Fragonard (who founded it in 1794), whose displays at the veterinary school in Alfort are well known from Jonathan Simon’s essays.  It also included the Spitzner collection of anatomical wax models from the nineteenth century which included a famous mechanical Venus that appeared to be breathing. According to Kathryn, it will take €10M to bring it back.  I don’t think that’s likely any time soon.

We talked a lot at the conference on the value of anatomical collections: what are they for in these days of computer imaging? We toured the Boerhaave Museum and the anatomical museum at the Leiden Medical School, and I have tried since to sort out the meanings of these places and why they hold such fascination for me and others.  Part of it is simply seeing the body (human and animal, male and female, child and adult, normal and abnormal).  There is something about the materiality, the tactile values, of an actual specimen that no image can provide.  The body is simply an amazing and complex mechanism that is still being deciphered.  And the tropes about mortality and the fragility of life that (so I have claimed in my own work) are always there in the dissecting room are certainly there in these anatomical collections.  I found many of them quite moving.

Just last week, I saw the Body Worlds exhibit currently on display at OMSI in Portland – another kind of anatomical collection.  It was packed.  I have seen Body Worlds several times before, and I was prepared to be cynical about it, with the slightly queasy feeling that von Hagens’s plastinations evoke.  But I was drawn in yet again, seeing the same fascination with the bodies on display that I had felt in Leiden.  A woman standing next to me as we looked at a display of viscera said, “I can’t believe all that is in here,” pointing to herself.  “Wow.”



3 thoughts on “Cultures of anatomical collections

  1. Miranda Paton

    Nice post and topic. I’m glad these collections and specimens are getting attention. I am glad they exist at all so that contemplative scientists but also historians and philosophers of science can ask how this material culture works.

    As someone who has dissected horses and the foot of a rhinoceros, I must insist, however, that using these models as opposed to texts– descriptions, diagrams or even photographs– leaves something out. Dissecting a body one knows from the more ordinary experience of seeing and palpating it from the outside or reading about others’ travels to its interior is a lived experience.

    There is no substitute. I was told this by the anatomists who guided my work in taking apart a horse’s body and then– in a second part of the assignment– rebuilding a model of part of it that would represent what I had learned. What I had to take on faith at the outset was made real to me in the practice of the work.

    Though horse’s legs and feet had been familiar to me for decades before my dissection experience, the worked changed the way I view them and the effects have lasted. Radiographs, for example, look different to me having seen “in the flesh” how soft tissues (ranging from hazy to invisible in these images) relate to the margins of bones meeting at joints that we are so often trying to see. The problem there is to know how a straight beam of electrons cross a three-dimensional structure with parts of varying density. Having seen those bones as they are arranged in situ for even one animal makes X-ray images far more readable to me. Thanks to the dead horses I worked on, I now do a far better job for living animals, and explaining to others what they are seeing and feeling when they run their hands down a horse’s leg.

    Dissection seems to remain a marginalized scientific activity. Anatomists, whose knowledge is hard won, are not usually rewarded for their efforts. Though dissections remain a staple of medical education, they are time-consuming and expensive. I see why departments in medical- and veterinary schools might like to develop on-line alternatives.

    I am not sure we are ready– intellectually, politically or aesthetically– to raise the veil on dissection, or get our hands wet. But even for the historian, I think there is no substitute.


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