Curious Trends


Morbid anatomy and medical curiosities

One of the most curious trends in recent years has been the growing fascination with medical and anatomical models, pathology and morbid curiosities.

Artists and those curious to explore the hitherto taboo domain of the body after death have been inspired by Renaissance artists and anatomists, who worked together to investigate the body through dissection.

A few of the curiously fascinating people and institutions recently involved in creating and exhibiting morbid anatomy and medical curiosties are mentioned here:

The controversial German anatomist, Gunther von Hagens, whose Body World exhibitions continue to shock audiences in major cities across the globe. The creator of a technique to preserve biological tissue specimens called plastination in 1977, von Hagens later developed a way to plastinate whole body specimens. His eccentric antics have received almost as much attention as his roadshow of macabre anatomical models: He famously sawed up specimens when denied the opportunity to show them at in Bavaria, and has recently offered dead body parts for sale.

 "I hope for the exhibitions to be places of enlightenment and contemplation, even of philosophical and religious self recognition, and open to interpretation regardless of the background and philosophy of life of the viewer," he explains on his Body Worlds website.

Deanna Petherbridge, a professor of drawing at the Royal College of Art, who worked with the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine on an exhibition called Materia Medica: A New Cabinet of Medicine and Art in the mid 1990s. This was followed by her own touring exhibition, The Quick and the Dead: Artists and Anatomy (also the title of her accompanying book).

Joanna Ebenstein, an historian and photographer, whose exhibiton, Anatomical Theatre: Depictions of the Body, Disease, and Death in Medical Museums of the Western World contains photos taken at major medical museums in the United States and Europe. The exhibition debuted at the Alabama Museum of the Health Sciences in 2007, but her extraordinary photographs can now also be viewed online.

The title of the exhibition comes from the days when doctors performed surgery or dissections in an amphitheatre before an audience of students and curious members of the public, commonly referred to as Anatomical Theatre. Many of the artefacts used were created because cadavers were difficult or illegal to come by and include models made from ivory, wax or papier mache.

“These preserved objects—be they skeletal, actual human remains, or depictions of the body in various forms of media—were invaluable teaching aids—portable, durable and easy to understand,” says Ebenstein.“They reveal the artistic hand and aesthetic sense of their creators with a surprising and sometimes macabre beauty. And, once we acknowledge these as objects created by individuals making aesthetic
choices, it is easy to take the next step and
speculate on their nature as art objects.”

Ebenstein was also the curatorial advisor and designer for The Exquisite Bodies exhibition at The Wellcome Collection in 2009, which explored ‘the forgotten history of the anatomical model, with its unique combination of serious science and fairground horror' and provided a rare insight into 19th-century pathology and beliefs about the human form.’ Apparently, in the 19th century, the anatomical Venus, a realistic model of an idealized woman with removable parts that can be ‘dissected’ was one of the most popular attractions at museums and travelling shows. There’s more information on The Wellcome Collection website, or visit the gallery to see a comprehensive selection of medical curiosities.

Probably the most comprehensive web-based source of information on this curious topic is available at Joanna Ebenstein's Morbid Anatomy blog – a fascinating collection of links ‘surveying the interstices of art, medicine, death and culture.’

In London, you’ll also find morbid curiosities, and many more oddities besides, at a Viktor Wynd’s new museum in Hackney.

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