Discovering Brazil

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, July 2017

I am sitting in the sun on the roof of my hotel in Rio, looking at the heavily forested hills to the east, the high rise hotels lining the Copacabana to the south, the elaborate rooftop garden across the Avenida de Princesa Isabel, and beyond, the rickety tin shacks of a favela creeping up a hill. It is winter in the tropics, and the temperature is 22 C (about 72 F) at 10 AM.

About 400 years ago, in 1637 or so (the sources differ on the dates), a young Dutch artist named Frans Post (1612-1680) travelled to South America at the invitation of the new Dutch governor of what was then a Dutch colony at Pernambuco in northeastern Brazil, which the Dutch held from 1630 until 1654.

Frans_Post_-_Paisagem_de_Pernambuco
Frans Post, Landscape of Pernambuco, 1637-44, Museu nacional de Belas Artes, Rio. Wikimedia

The Dutch governor, Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen (1604-1679), ruled over the sugar-rich territory between 1636 and 1644.

Map of Brazil from 17th century
Map of Dutch Brazil, ca 1639

According to art historians, Post completed eighteen landscapes while in Brazil, documenting Dutch possessions, including the port of Recife.  Post painted many more Brazilian landscapes from memory after his return to the Netherlands.  Another artist accompanying the governor, Albert Eckhout (1610-1666), painted people, including the slaves who worked on the sugar plantations, as well as plants and animals.

I saw a couple of Post’s later paintings last week at the art museum in São Paulo.  I had never heard of Frans Post, and knew only vaguely of the Dutch presence in Brazil.  I was intrigued by these large, lush landscapes laden with tropical plants, Dutch planters, and slaves.

Post View of Olinda 1662
Frans Post, View of Olinda, Brazil, 1662. Rijksmuseum

Some of his earlier works are at the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes in Rio; oddly, most of them are in Paris at the Louvre, presented as a gift to Louis XIV in 1679.  Some of Eckhout’s paintings, part of the same gift, became the basis of Gobelins tapestries. In 1645, Post made several engravings of his earlier paintings to illustrate a book by Caspar Barlaeus (1584-1648) on Johan Maurits’s tenure as governor, Rerum per octennium in Brasilia et alibi nuper gestarum (Recent achievements in Brazil over the past eight years), published in 1647.

Recently, a curator in the Netherlands discovered thirty-four previously unknown drawings of Brazilian animals made by Post during his stay.  Here is one, of a jaguar.   The caption calls it a “tiger,” and notes that some he has seen are black.

Post cat
Frans Post, Jaguar, ca. 1637-1644. Noord-Hollands Archief, Haarlem

The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam exhibited these drawings last winter, accompanied by taxidermied animals from the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden.  Sorry I missed it!

Johan Maurits appointed not only artists but also naturalists, to document the incredible richness and strangeness of Brazil. Among them was the German naturalist, astronomer, and explorer Georg Marcgraf (1610-1644), who arrived in Brazil early in 1638 and stayed until Johan Maurits’s departure; Marcgraf died shortly thereafter in Angola.  With Marcgraf was a Dutch physician, Willem Piso (1611-1678).  Together Marcgraf and Piso documented Brazilian flora and fauna.  Piso held a particular interest in indigenous remedies, following in the footsteps of Spanish physician Francisco Hernández (1514-1587), who had recorded Mexican plants and animals and the Aztec pharmacopoeia in the 1570s.  Hernández’s work finally appeared, much truncated, as Rerum medicarum Novae Hispaniae thesaurus (1651).

L0001205 F. Hernandez, 1517-1587, Rerum Medicarum..., 1649
Hernandez, Thesaurus, 1651

Johannes de Laet (1581-1649) edited the work of Piso and Marcgraf into the beautiful volume Historiae naturalis Brasiliae, published in 1648, a landmark in the natural history of the new world.

Historia-Naturalis-Brasiliae
Marcgraf and Piso, Historia naturalis Brasiliae, 1648

Many of the illustrations came from the work of Post and Eckhout.

Several historians, including Hal Cook, Britt Dams, and Neil Safier, have written about Marcgraf and Piso.  I have seen less about their relationship with Post and Eckhout (which does not mean that that work does not exist).  I like to think of these young men, all still in their twenties in the late 1630s, walking through the magical landscape of Brazil and recording its treasures, far from home in northern Europe.

 

Vesalius and the beheaded man

On the 12th of May, 1543, Jakob Karrer von Getweiler was executed in Basel, Switzerland.  Reports say he was beheaded, although hanging was a more usual mode of execution.  Karrer was a bigamist who attacked his legal wife with a knife after she discovered his second wife.   According to a contemporary account, Karrer was a habitual criminal, and he left his wife grievously injured.  Although she did not die, he was sentenced to death.

The renowned Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius had been in Basel for several months to supervise the publication of his magnum opus, De humani corpus fabrica libri septem (Seven books on the structure of the human body), published in Basel later that year. eu040001 Perhaps it was inevitable that Vesalius was granted Karrer’s body to dissect.  Only executed criminals could be publicly dissected, with the blessing of the Basel Senate.  We do not know if the Senate offered Vesalius the beheaded body or if he requested it.  But Vesalius dissected Karrer, in front of an audience.

He then took Karrer’s dissected remains with the intention of making an articulated skeleton.  In chapter 39 of Book 1 of De fabrica, Vesalius had detailed for the first time the lengthy and gruesome process of constructing a skeleton.  Vesalius ch 39 2He included this illustration of someone handing down a decapitated head from a scaffold. Some of the techniques had existed for quite a while; the 14th century physician Guy de Chauliac noted “Nous faisons aussi l’Anatomie [d]es corps desseichez au Soleil, ou consommez en terre, ou fondus en eau courante ou bouillante » (we make an anatomy of bodies dried in the sun, or consumed by the earth, or dissolved in running or boiling water – “an anatomy” here indicates a skeleton).   Macerating in water and then drying in the sun were long-known methods of preparing bones for transport.

In his chapter, Vesalius first described the conventional method of preparing a skeleton, and illustrated it in one of the initial letters in his book.vesalius ch 39 1  As much flesh as possible was cut off of the body – without severing the joints or the ligaments – before it was put in a long perforated box, covered with quicklime, and sprinkled with water.   After a week the box was placed in a stream of running water and the flesh would presumably fall off of the bones and be washed away over a period of several more days.  Then the body was removed from the box, further cleaned with a knife, and posed in the sun to dry in a particular position, held together by its ligaments.

Vesalius described this method only to denigrate it as time consuming, dirty, and difficult; moreover, the blackened ligaments would cover the joints and other parts of interest.   He proceeded to describe in excruciating detail the proper way to separate human bones from flesh.  “Get any kind of cadaver somewhere,” he began.  The corpse was dissected and then boiled “in a large and capacious cauldron … of the kind women use for the preparation of lye over the fire.” He saved the cartilaginous parts such as the ears and stuck them to a piece of paper, and placed the organs and blood (squeezed out of a sponge) in another vessel.

The bones were boiled, carefully covered by water at all times, for several hours, with regular skimming off of froth and fat.  The bones of children, he said, take less time than adults.  “The object of the cooking is to clean the bones as thoroughly as is done with the knife while eating.”

Picture2

 

Therefore one should pull out individual bones from the “broth” with tongs from time to time and clean them further with the hands or a knife, but this job should not be entrusted to a mere amateur.  The knives he used were similar, if not identical, to the knives wielded by such master meat-carvers as Vincenzo Cervio later in the sixteenth century, and the language of cooking is explicit.  One then placed the cleaned bones in more boiling water, and finally removed them, carefully drying them with a rough cloth to remove remaining bits.

The bones should not be allowed to dry too much.  If they are not too hardened, a shoemaker’s awl may be used to punch holes for the copper wire used to string the bones together, although in the 1555 second edition of De fabrica Vesalius also described a bone drill he had constructed.Picture1  He recommended starting with the feet and working upward, the reverse of the common head-to-toe order of dissection.  An iron rod, made to order, supported the vertebrae; the arms were then assembled and wired to the trunk.

With characteristic macabre whimsy Vesalius recommended posing the skeleton with a scythe, or a pike, or a javelin, and suggested stringing the ear bones and ears onto a nerve to make a necklace (when I read this I could only think of Tim O’Brien’s surreal story “The Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong,” in The Things They Carried (1990), and its heroine Mary Anne who wears, at the end, a necklace made up of severed Viet Cong ears).

The skeleton of Jacob Karrer, unlike most others from this era, still survives, and is on display at the anatomy museum in Basel, where I saw it a few months ago.IMG_20160429_141643912

The Skeleton Trade: Life, Death, and Commerce in Early Modern Europe

Objects in Motion: Material Culture in Transition

Anita Guerrini, Horning Professor of the Humanities and Professor of History at Oregon State University, discusses the fascinating research which she presented atObjects in Motion: Material Culture in Transition.

Although the human skeleton was well known as a symbol before 1500, the articulated skeleton does not seem to have come into its own as an object – scientific and artistic as well as symbolic – until the time of Vesalius. Curiously ubiquitous, since everyone has one, but yet largely invisible, anatomists revealed the skeleton to view. The well-known illustrations of Vesalius were plagiarized over and over for two centuries after their publication in 1543.

Vesalius, "De humani corporis fabrica", 1543. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Vesalius, “De humani corporis fabrica”, 1543. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Vesalius was the first to give detailed instructions on how to make a skeleton, for although it was a natural object, it was also a crafted object whose construction entailed a lot of work…

View original post 471 more words

The King’s Elephant

Last month, someone broke into the Paleontology wing of the Paris Museum of Natural History, and used a chain saw to cut off one of the tusks of the elephant skeleton there.  The skeleton dates from 1681 and is the oldest specimen at the museum.  Here is a little on the skeleton’s origins, from my just-finished book, The Courtiers’ Anatomists, and a picture I took of the skeleton last summer, with both tusks.Museum Paris June 2011 005

The anatomists from the Paris Academy of Sciences set out for Versailles with many tools and crates in the dark early morning of Wednesday, 22 January 1681.   When they reached the château, the dead elephant had already been hauled up onto a platform, “a kind of theatre,” as Fontenelle described it, ready for dissection.

The African elephant had been a gift from the King of Portugal thirteen years before, and had survived many Parisian winters before finally succumbing the previous day.  Four years old when she travelled from the Congo to Paris, she was therefore 17 at her death.  She was not the only elephant in Paris; a young Asian elephant had been on show when she arrived at Versailles.  But by the time of her death she was certainly the best known.  In the summer, her many visitors could see her in an open pen; in winter, they could view her through the glass of her heated chamber.  Artists came to draw her.  She ate 24 pounds of bread and twelve pints of wine each day, supplemented by two buckets of “potage” or sometimes cooked rice.  During her summer promenades through Versailles she pulled up grass with her trunk and ate it.  Generally very gentle, she knocked to the ground an artist who teased her; another she soaked with water from her trunk.  Her trunk was a marvel: she could untie knots with it, and one night opened the door of her enclosure without waking her keeper and wandered around the menagerie.

Elephants had a properly royal history in France: the Caliph Harun al-Rashid had sent Charlemagne an elephant named Abul-Abbas, and Henri IV sent an elephant he owned as a gift to Queen Elizabeth in 1591.  During the reign of Louis XIII, an elephant made a progress through France.  An elephant figured prominently in the fourth of five paintings in Charles LeBrun’s series The Triumphs of Alexander.  The painting, Triumphal Entry into Babylon, completed around 1670, depicts an African elephant like the one at Versailles rather than, as the subject might have demanded, an Asian one.  The series was much copied in tapestries and engravings. Charles_Le_Brun_-_Entry_of_Alexander_into_Babylon

Such a wondrous and enormous beast as the Versailles animal (eight and a half feet long, seven and a half high) held great interest for Claude Perrault and the Academy.  Few previous dissections of elephants had been made, and much about the anatomy and even the external morphology of the elephant was unknown.  Perrault and the Compagnie carefully examined and measured the elephant’s exterior, even scrutinizing her skin through a microscope.  It took over twenty pages in the printed description (only published in 1733) before the anatomist Duverney made the first cut.   He proceeded slowly and methodically, removing individual organs and parts, including the trunk, to be transported to the Academy for further examination.  Perrault took detailed notes and Philippe de La Hire sketched.  They discovered that the elephant, which had been thought to be male, was in fact female.  At some point in the proceedings, when Duverney was literally immersed in the beast, King Louis made an appearance and demanded to know where the anatomist was; presumably he knew Duverney as one of the tutors of the Dauphin.  In Fontenelle’s words, Duverney “rose from the flank of the animal, where he had been, so to speak, engulfed” and greeted his king.

Even with winter weather, the parts of the elephant would soon have begun to deteriorate, and the Compagnie met the following Sunday and Monday as well as on their regular Wednesday meeting to witness Duverney’s dissection of the head and other parts, accompanied by Perrault’s explanation.  Dissection of the trunk extended into the middle of February.  The reading of Duverney’s memoire of the dissection and Perrault’s account of the exterior occupied several more weeks.  The Compagnie was still talking about the elephant the following summer, and she featured prominently in the Academy’s annual report to Colbert.  A year later, the Compagnie met at the King’s Garden to look at the elephant’s skeleton, which had been assembled there.  The skeleton’s interest lay mainly in its enormous size and the fortuitous structure of the elephant’s defenses that made her such a deadly foe, and that made her gentleness at Versailles all the more remarkable.

THE LEIDEN DECLARATION ON HUMAN ANATOMY/ANATOMICAL COLLECTIONS

If you would like to sign, please contact Rina Knoeff, rknoeff@hum.leidenuniv.nl

 

THE LEIDEN DECLARATION ON HUMAN ANATOMY/ANATOMICAL COLLECTIONS

CONCERNING THE CONSERVATION & PRESERVATION OF ANATOMICAL & PATHOLOGICAL COLLECTIONS

 

 

 

THIS DECLARATION

IS ADDRESSED TO THOSE RESPONSIBLE FOR

ANATOMICAL  & PATHOLOGICAL MUSEUMS  & COLLECTIONS WORLDWIDE

From: Participants, delegates and supporters of the

International Conference on ‘Cultures of Anatomical Collections’,

held at Leiden University, 15-18 February 2012

http://hum.leiden.edu/icd/news-events/cultures-of-anatomical-collections.html

We are scholars, curators and creative artists from across Europe and North America with professional involvements in human anatomy and pathology. We are writing to express our very great concern about the storage and preservation of collections of human anatomy and pathology in some parts of the world.

 

Almost every medical faculty possesses anatomical and/or pathological collections: human and animal preparations, wax- and other models, as well as drawings, photographs and documents and archives relating to them.

 

We salute and wholeheartedly commend and admire those institutions in which anatomical and pathological museum materials are celebrated and well-cared for.

 

However, we are also aware that in some other institutions, such collections are neglected: badly stored, poorly maintained, and rendered inaccessible to medical and other audiences.

 

Newer teaching methods and preoccupations have sometimes caused these collections to become under-appreciated. Financial constraints and crises can often mean that funding for the conservation, storage, and sometimes even the preservation, of anatomical collections can become de-prioritized. As a result, collections can be in great danger of becoming undervalued and neglected, which may eventually result in permanent damage.

 

We are aware of more than one recent instance in which curators have been marginalized or lost, and collections placed in inappropriate ‘storage’ conditions, rendering them liable to serious deterioration. Separated from their archives, these collections can lose identity, sometimes irrevocably.

 

We greatly fear that some uniquely important anatomical collections are currently in danger of being irretrievably damaged and perhaps lost to medical and cultural heritage.

 

We, the undersigned, wish to raise international awareness concerning the current critical situation for these collections.

 

Anatomical and pathological collections are medically relevant not only for future generations of medical students and faculty, and for future medical research. They are also important in the history of medicine generally, for the history of the institutions to which they belong, and also for a wider understanding of the cultural history of the body.

 

These collections sometimes document diseases and medical conditions that are now rare or simply no longer exist, teaching methods and preoccupations currently unfashionable or apparently superseded, and techniques of manufacture and display no longer practised. Collections often hold rare and extraordinary materials that are records of unique scientific investigations, medical conditions, and skills. In some cases these materials are the only documents that allow us to understand key changes and developments in Western medicine, and their dissemination.

 

Moreover, anatomical collections are crucial to new scholarly inter-disciplinary studies that investigate the interaction between arts and sciences, especially but not exclusively medicine. Such collections allow the study of interactions between anatomists, scientists and anatomical artists, and other occupational groups involved in anatomical and pathological displays. They embody the rich histories related to the display of natural history and medical cabinets; they reveal how new artistic and documentary techniques and materials were adopted by physicians and scientists in other historical periods; they demonstrate how new knowledge about the body and the natural world was presented by and for the medical, scientific and sometimes lay audiences.

 

Ultimately anatomical collections are important in knowing ourselves and the bodies we are. In this sense they are no less important than world famous artworks like the “Mona Lisa”, the “Venus de Milo” or Michelangelo’s “David”.

 

We urge medical faculties worldwide to mobilise all possible means in order to protect and preserve the important academic, medical, institutional, scientific and cultural heritage these collections represent.

 

Moreover we urge funding bodies to recognise and cherish these collections.

 

 

Babke Aarts (assistant curator, Utrecht University Museum)

Prof. Rosa Ballester (historian of science, University Miguel Hernández)

Roberta Ballestriero, M.Phil. (art historian, associate lecturer for the Open University, Manchester, photographer)

Dr. Philip Beh, MBBS, DMJ, FHKAM(Path), FFFLM (Associate Professor forensic pathology, the University of Hong Kong)

Dr. Leo van Bergen (medical historian, Royal Netherlands Institute for South East Asian and Caribbean Studies, Leiden)

Timo Bolt, MA (medical historian, UMC Utrecht)

Prof. Jose-Luis Bueno-Lopez (President Spanish Society of Anatomy, the University of the Basque Country, Leioa, Spain)

Owen Burke (medical physicist at Glan Clwyd Hospital, photographer)

Prof. Li Chong Chan (Chair, Professor of Pathology, the University of Hong Kong)

Prof. Montserrat Cabré (historian of science, Universidad de Cantabria)

Prof. P.H. Dangerfield (clinical anatomist, University of Liverpool)

Andries J. van Dam (conservator, Leiden University Medical Centre and directory board member Committee for Conservation, International Council of Museums, ICOM-CC)

Prof. Dr. Sven Dupré (professor of History of Knowledge, Institute for Art History, Freie Universität Berlin)

Dr. James M. Edmonson (Chief Curator, Dittrick Museum, Case Western Reserve University, Secretary General of the European Association of Museums of the History of the Medical Sciences)

Dr. Florike Egmond (cultural and science historian, Leiden University)

J. Carlos Garcia-Reyes (historian of science, CSIC, Barcelona)

Dr. Anita Guerrini (historian of science, Oregon State University)

Ayda Christina Garzón Soarte (Conservator and museologist, Universidad El Bosque, Bogota, Colombia, South America)

Dr. Alette Fleischer (historian of science)

Prof. Dr. Inge Fourneau (professor in vascular surgery and anatomy, KU Leuven)

Drs. Bart Grob (curator, medical history, Museum Boerhaave, Leiden)

Prof. Hughes Dreyssé (chairman UMAC-ICOM (University Museums and Academic Collections – International Council of Museums))

Dr. Glenn Harcourt (historian of art and visual culture, independent scholar, Los Angeles, CA)

Marieke Hendriksen (MA, MRes, cultural and medical historian, Leiden University)

Christopher Henry (Director of Heritage, The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh)

Dr. Marijn Hollestelle (historian of science, Foundation for the History of Technology, Eindhoven)

Assoc. Prof. PD MAG. Dr.phil. Dr. Med. Sonia Horn (Medical University of Vienna)

Dr. Nick Hopwood (historian of medical science, University of Cambridge)

Prof. Frank Huisman (medical historian, University Medical Center Utrecht)

Hieke Huistra Msc (medical historian, Leiden University)

Dr. Tiffany Jenkins (sociologist, & arts and society director of the Institute of Ideas)

Dr. Karin Johannisson (medical historian, Uppsala)

Dr. Stephen C. Kenny (historian, University of Liverpool)

Dr. Rina Knoeff (medical historian, Leiden University)

Prof. Richard L. Kremer (historian of science, curator of the King collection of Historic Scientific Instruments, Dartmouth College, USA)

Dr. Anna Maerker (medical historian, King´s College London)

Dr. Daniel Margocsy (assistant professor of history, Hunter College – CUNY)

Prof. G.M. Morriss-Kay (Balliol College, Oxford)

Dr. Ulrika Nilsson (medical historian, Stockholm University, Sweden)

David Pantalony (curator, physical sciences and medicine, Canada Science and Technology Museum)

Dr. José Pardo-Tomás (medical historian, CSIC, Spanish Council of Scientific Research)

Dr. Sebastian Pranghofer (historian of medicine, Helmut-Schmidt-University, Hamburg and Durham University)

Prof. Concepcion Reblet, MD, PhD (The University of the Basque Country, Leioa, Spain)

Dr Ruth Richardson (historian, King’s College, London and Hong Kong University)

Prof. Dr. Alessandro Ruggeri ( Director of “Museo delle Cere Anatomiche “Luigi Cattaneo” Alma Mater Studiorum Bologna University -Italy

Dr. Miguel Ruiz-Rubiano (Anatomy Professor,)

Lisa Temple-cox (independent researcher, Essex)

Dr. Michael Sappol (historian, National Library of Medicine, USA)

Prof. Thomas Söderqvist (Director Medical Meseion, University of Copenhagen)

Dr. Cindy Stelmackowich (artist, art historian and medical historian, New York Academy of Medicine and Carleton University)

Prof. Laurence Talairach-Vielmas (Professor of English, University of Toulouse (UTM))

Prof. Dr. Thomas Schnalke (medical historian, Director of the Berlin Museum of Medical History at the Charité)

Somayyeh Shahsavari (medical student (MBBS4), St. George’s University of London)

Dr. Rajul Singh, FRC Path (Good hope hospital, Sutton Coldfield)

Dr. Stefan Sommer (Department of Biological Sciences, Northern Arizona University)

Barbara Tramelli (doctoral student, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin)

Prof. Dr. Geert Vanpaemel (historian of science, KU Leuven)

Robert Vonk, MA (medical historian, VU university medical center, Amsterdam)

Darren Wagner (cultural and medical historian, University of York)

Dr. Cornelia Weber (General Manager, Hermann von Helmholtz-Zentrum für Kulturtechnik, Humboldt University of Berlin)

Dr. Elizabeth A. Williams (Ph.D., medical historian, Oklahoma State University)

Dr. Kaat Wils (cultural historian, KU Leuven)

Ieteke Witteveen (National Archaelogical-Anthropological Memory Management, Curacao, Carribbean)

Dr. Alfons Zarzoso (historian and curator, Museu d’Història de la Medicina de Catalunya, Barcelona, CEHIC, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona)

Prof. Dr. Robert Zwijnenberg (Leiden chair of art in relation to the sciences, Leiden University)

 

 

 

 

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.”