Friday, July 31, 2009

Morbid Anatomy now on Twitter!

Morbid Anatomy has recently launched a Twitter feed featuring news, reportage, images, and links intended to supplement the information found on this blog. If you would like to join, click here.

Photo: Hummingbird Display Case, detail; London Museum of Natural History. More here.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Mütter Museum Director Robert Hicks Lecturing at Old Operating Theatre, London

This Tuesday August 4th at 6:30 P.M., Robert Hicks, director of the fabulous and amazing Mütter Museum, will be giving a presentation entitlted "Exquisite Corpses: Mysteries of the Mütter Museum" at London's Old Operating Theatre. Here are the full details:
Exquisite Corpses: Mysteries of the Mütter Museum
Images of post mortem human remains are fascinating and disquieting. They amuse children at Halloween and disturb adults when on display at museums.

Today’s omnipresent imagery of people doing everything at all times has not accustomed us to depictions of human mortality. The dead are speedily removed from view, and our direct contact with the dead is limited and controlled. Although mortal images can arouse empathy and may develop tolerance for a spectrum of human physical variation, other cultural voices argue for proscription and censure.

In this presentation, Robert Hicks explores our dialogue with post mortem human imagery by examining its relationship to politics and ownership of the dead. He incorporates perspectives drawn from anthropology, art criticism, history, museum curatorship, and criminal justice.

Robert D. Hicks, Ph.D. is the director of the Mütter Museum and Historical Library at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. He also directs the F. C. Wood Institute and holds the William Maul Measey Chair for the History of Medicine. Before coming to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Robert supervised exhibits, collections, and educational outreach as the Director of the Roy Eddleman Institute for Education and Interpretation at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia. He has worked with museum-based education, curatorship, and exhibits, primarily as a consultant to historic sites in Virginia. Additionally, he has served as a U.S. Naval officer and worked in criminal justice for over two decades.
I will definitely be attending; hope to see you there! Full info can be found by clicking here. Image from a long past photo trip to the Mütter; more can be found here.

"Exqusite Bodies" Press

The preview for the exhibit "Exquisite Bodies" at the Wellcome Collection last night was fantastic. So is the onslaught of press to greet my slightly hung-over self this morning. Here are 2 of my favorites thus far: the audio slide-show featuring narration by curator Kate Forde on the BBC website (click here) and the review in The Londonist which ends with the line "Gruesomely glorious stuff and a must-see for anyone without syphilis" (click here.) Check 'em out! Not quite as good as seeing the exhibition in person (more about that here), but a good start.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Tomorrow is the Opening Night of "Exquisite Bodies" at the Wellcome Collection!

I got a sneak peak of the Wellcome Collection's upcoming "Exquisite Bodies" exhibition yesterday and can assure you that it is indeed quite marvelous! The preview of the show is tomorrow evening; it will be open to the public beginning the following day, Thursday July 30th.

To get a sense of just how marvelous this exhibition is, check out the article "Graphic and Ghoulish: The Wellcome's Cadaverous Exquisite Bodies Show"--which describes the exhibition as "Part fairground attraction, part science lesson"-- and the accompanying photo gallery featured in today's Guardian. The images you see above--drawn from this gallery--are just the tip of the iceberg of what you'll find there! And, of course, if you can, you absolutely must see this exhibition in person. Even these wonderful photos fail to do justice to the artifacts and the experience of viewing them in the lush Victorian parlour-inspired Wellcome installation.

Click here to see the article, here to see the photo gallery (from which I've drawn these images), and here to find out more about the exhibition.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Magnificent Collection of the Museum Boerhaave, Leiden

I have just processed a batch of photographs from two recent trips to one of my favorite museums in the world, the venerable Boerhaave of Leiden, NL. The museum's collection magnificently demonstrates the richness of the history of medicine, anatomy and science as it played itself out in the Netherlands. Some of my particular favorite displays: An assortment of incredibly life-like, thoughtful, and uncanny wet preparations (circa 1730) from the collection of famed anatomist Bernardus Siegfried Albinus, (best remembered for his majestically illustrated monumental tome Tabulae sceleti et musculorum corporis humani):

A recreation of the Leiden anatomical theatre as it looked in the 17th Century (as memorialized in W. Swanenburg's 1610 engraving; see following image) complete with historically-accurate allegorically composed skeletons and a glossary of the Latin memorial phrases the banners they hold:

And loads of other wonderful odds and ends from the history of science and medicine including ancient skeletal material:

an impressive collection of recently refurbished Auzoux models:

Anatomically oriented artworks such as this 1803 watercolor "Petrus Koning with his Master" by J.H. Prins (as featured in a previous post):

And elegant natural history artifacts, such as this butterfly cabinet, attributed to "Sepp," from 1760:

These images are just the tip of the iceberg; you can see many more photos (and find out a great deal of information about them all) by clicking here; you can also view larger versions of the images by clicking on them. Photo-collections of similar museums can be viewed here. You can visit the Boerhaave website by clicking here.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Two Videos Related to the Wellcome Collection's Upcoming "Exquisite Bodies" Exhibition

I have just come across two fascinating videos related to the Wellcome Collection's upcoming exhibition "Exquisite Bodies." The first, entitled "How to Make a Wax Model," features waxwork artist Eleanor Crook who sculpts an anatomical wax on camera while discussing her process and the history of anatomical waxworks and wax-artistry. The other video follows "Exquisite Bodies" curator Kate Forde as she takes us on a walk-through of some of the fascinating objects that will be included in the "Exquisite Bodies" exhibition, including the truly spectacular 18th Century anatomical Venus from the famed La Specola workshop in Florence (see above). She discusses the history of these artifacts in the context of the wider history of anatomical artworks and, when applicable, does what is sadly impossible in an exhibition-- demonstrates their ingenious movable parts.

To watch "How to Make a Wax Model" with Eleanor Crook, click here. To watch "Exquisite Bodies: Curator's Perspective," click here. For more on the exhibition itself (which I predict will be seriously amazing) click here.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Seeking Collectors in London and Environs

I will be leaving for London on Friday, mainly in order to attend the premiere of "Exquisite Bodies: or the Curious and Grotesque History of the Anatomical Model" at the wonderful Wellcome Collection (more on that here) but also to continue my ongoing photo series "Private Cabinets", which seeks to document extraordinary collections assembled by private collectors (more on that here).

While in the UK, I have scheduled to photograph a few more of these private collections and am on the lookout for more. If anyone has any leads as to private collection that might be of interest, or has a collection of their own they would like to share, please email me at All suggestions appreciated! Also appreciated would be advice from Morbid Anatomy readers as to to museums, old collections, naturalia-themed shops, or any other must-see places in and around London.

To find out more about the ongoing "Private Cabinet" series, click here. All photos you see above are from that series; you can see more (and find out more about the collections featured above) by clicking here.

Friday, July 17, 2009

"Exquisite Bodies: or the Curious and Grotesque History of the Anatomical Model," Exhibition, July 30 - October 18, Wellcome Collection, London

[the] exhibition "Exquisite Bodies: or the Curious and Grotesque History of the Anatomical Model" is inspired by the craze for anatomy museums during the 19th century, when displays of wax models conveyed information about the human body to wider audiences than ever before. ‘Exquisite Bodies’ includes a superb variety of historic anatomical waxes, from the academic to the fantastical, examining how they circulated in contexts as disparate as the laboratory and the fairground. --Kate Forde, Curator, the Wellcome Collection
The Wellcome Collection--by far my favorite contemporary medical museum--is launching an incredibly exciting new exhibition, which I have had the honor and delight of participating in as curatorial adviser and graphic designer. Thus the long gap in my blog posting, for which I apologize.

Entitled "Exquisite Bodies: or the Curious and Grotesque History of the Anatomical Model" and running from July 30 to October 18 2009, this exhibition takes as subject the under-appreciated and rarely glossed history of the popular anatomical display (see recent MA posts here, here, here, here and here). Popular anatomical displays were a kind of popular, spectacular, democratized version of scholarly or professional medical museums. Often exhibiting objects intended for (or perhaps even once presented in) an academic context, these displays--which were extremely popular in the 19th Century and could be widely found at fairgrounds and in "popular anatomical museums" until the beginning of the 20th Century-blended education and entertainment, public health and spectacle, scholarship and prurience for a mass audience.

The centerpiece of these displays was usually the Anatomical Venus--a beautiful, life-like woman, generally made of wax, often life-sized, and demonstrating--upon the delicate removal of her breastplate--the mysteries of the inner female body (see 5th image down; more on this concept here and here). This central Venus was generally supplemented by waxes and other sorts of models, wet preparations, and illustrations parsing topics such as the ideal and compromised female body, the ravages of sexually transmitted diseases, the aberrant body (ie. freaks; see bearded lady, 2nd image), the mysteries of generation, and the ill effects of spermatorhea (aka "abnormally frequent emission of the semen without copulation", seen as a real public health issue at the time).

The exhibition will bring together an amazing collection of models--many of them breathtakingly exquisite waxes--and ephemera never seen together under one roof. Objects have been drawn from--in the proud tradition of the popular anatomical displays to which this exhibition pays tribute--both academic and popular collections. Objects from The Gordon Museum of London, The Museum Dr Guislain of Ghent, Musée de la Médicine in Brussels, the University of Cambridge, the London Science Museum, and the Wellcome Library will be featured.

Here's more about the exhibition and the phenomenon of popular medical displays, from the Wellcome Collection press release:
In the 19th century, despite the best efforts of body snatchers, the demand from medical schools for fresh cadavers far outstripped the supply. One solution to this gruesome problem came in the form of lifelike wax models. These models often took the form of alluring female figures that could be stripped and split into different sections. Other models were more macabre, showing the body ravaged by 'social diseases' such as venereal disease, tuberculosis and alcohol and drug addiction.

With their capacity to titillate as well as educate, anatomical models became sought-after curiosities; displayed not only in dissecting rooms but also in sideshows and the curiosity cabinets of wealthy Victorian gentlemen. For a small admission fee, visitors seeking an unusual afternoon's entertainment could visit displays of these strange dolls in London, Paris, Brussels and Barcelona.
This show promises to be truly marvelous in every sense of the word. If you find yourself in London between July 30th and October 18th, be sure to check it out! And drop me a line and let me know what you think!

To find out more about the exhibition, click here. To visit the Wellcome image gallery related to the exhibition (from where many of the above images are drawn), click here. To play with the Wellcome interactive Anatomical Venus (!!!), click here.

All of the above images are of objects that will be included in the exhibition. Captions, top to bottom:

1) Head exhibiting syphilis, c.1900, Collection Family Coolen, Antwerp/Museum Dr Guislain, Ghent, Belgium

2) Bearded lady, Undated (c. 1900), Collection Family Coolen, Antwerp/Museum Dr Guislain, Ghent, Belgium

3) Extraction of the placenta: Plaster relief from a series illustrating the stages of childbirth, Undated (c.1900) Collection Family Coolen, Antwerp/Museum Dr Guislain, Ghent, Belgium

4) Anatomical female figure, Germany, undated (1600-1800), Ivory, The Science Museum, London

5) Wax Venus - anatomical figure made in Florence, 1771-1800, Courtesy of the Science Museum, London

6) Poster from the Roca collection. Collection Family Coolen, Antwerp/Museum Dr Guislain, Ghent, Belgium

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Art and History of the Death Mask

Death doesn’t lie, so death masks – a cast of the face in wax or plaster, taken just hours after breath has gone – promise truthful representations of the departed. In an era before photography, these masks give us each beauty and blemish, a living presence in unchanging material. But how were they made? And what is their uncanny allure?...
So begins Obit Mag's article "Death Doesn't Lie," which offers a brief discussion of the art and history of that veritable institution, the death mask. You can read the whole story (and see more images) here. Image above, labeled "Making Death Mask, from the article; click in image to see much larger version.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

"La Portentosa Vida de la Muerte (The Astounding Life of Death)" Joaquin Bolaños, 18th C

A few weeks ago, Salvador Olguin gave a wonderful presentation at Observatory. The lecture, entitled "'Cuerpo Presente': Mourning and Cultural Representations of Death in Mexico..." covered an incredibly broad swath of Mexican cultural history, focusing on cultural attitudes towards death from the times of the Aztecs to the present. Topics covered included Aztec religion and ritual, José Posada's calavera woodcuts, Spanish missionaries, Day of the Dead, rural Mexican post-mortem photography of the 1940s and '50s, and the contemporary Mexican cult of the dead, now an official state-sanctioned religion. This lecture will, someday soon (I promise!) be available in streaming video form on the Observatory website; stay tuned for more on that.

One of the most interesting things Olguin touched on in his lecture was a book I had never heard of: the fantastically illustrated (see above) La Portentosa Vida de la Muerte (The Astounding Life of Death). This book--a kind of whimsical and irreverent life history of Death in the form of a woman--was published in Mexico in the 18th Century and was, as he explains, highly influential in Mexican culture. I asked Salvador if he would be willing to write a guest post about this fascinating book for Morbid Anatomy; following is his contribution:
The Astounding Life of Death
La Portentosa Vida de la Muerte (The Astounding Life of Death) is an 18th Century Mexican book written by Joaquin Bolaños. In it, Bolaños recounts the many adventures of Death, from her beginnings in the Garden of Eden, where she is said to have been born from Adam’s Sin (Death’s father) and Eve’s Guilt (her mother; see image 1 above), to her dramatic destruction in Judgment Day (image 8), with copious quotations from the Bible and the Church Fathers to back up his facts. The protagonist of the story is referred to as “The Empress of the Sepulchers, The Avenger, and The Very Lady of All Humanity”. Muerte (death) is a female noun in Spanish; this fact allows Bolaños to create a female heroine, a very peculiar one.

Bolaños develops his central character thoroughly, in a lively and humoristic way, reflecting–and contributing to shape–the ambiguous relationship that Mexican culture has with death, marked by eroticism, morbid attraction, sadness and joy. Bolaños’s Death is irreverent, passionate and adventurous, and the book is a very early example of an American character-based novel, with a tongue-in-cheek tone and not lacking social criticism. It was criticized by Mexico’s Colonial literary critics as a piece of bad taste; nevertheless, it has been reevaluated by later scholars as a remarkable testimony of its time.

In the book –which is considered by many scholars to be one of the first Mexican novels–Death suffers, she falls in love, gets married several times (though her marriages were never consummated, as her husbands--all doctors--died upon entering the nuptial bed), and becomes angry when men forget about her continuous presence. The 1792 edition was accompanied by a series of illustrations (shown above) that depict Death in her early days, walking beside her grandmother (image 2)–whose name, according to Bolaños’s quotes from the Bible, is Concupiscence–, getting married (image 6)–while the Devil serves as the minister.

I gladly share some of these illustrations with the readers of this blog.
Thanks so much to Salvador for his wonderful lecture, this excellent post, and for introducing us to such a fascinating moment in Mexican cultural history. If you would like to find out more about Salvador's lecture, you can click here; you can also visit Salvador's blog--"Una Liebre"--by clicking here, and can email him with directly with any questions at To find out more about Observatory, click here; if you'd like to get on the Observatory mailing list, please click here.

All images from the 1792 edition of La Portentosa Vida de la Muerte, care of Salvador Olguin; I urge you to click on thme to see larger, more detailed versions. Well worth the time!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

"Der Orchideengarten," 1919-1921

The always wonderful blog "A Journey Around my Skull" has just posted a fascinating story about a short-lived German fantasy pulp magazine called Der Orchideengarten. Around for only 3 years (from 1919 to 1921) and spanning 51 issues, the magazine (to quote from the post, which quotes Franz Rottensteiner's TheFantasy Book: An Illustrated History From Dracula To Tolkien):
...featured an impressive gallery of fantastic art, ranging from reproductions of medieval woodcuts, and the work of established masters of macabre drawing like Gustave Dore or Tony Johannot, to contemporary German artists like Rolf von Hoerschelmann, Otto Linnekogel, Karl Ritter, Heinrich Kley, or Alfred Kubin.... the magazine also printed a wide selection of fantastic stories by famous foreign authors such as Dickens, Pushkin, Charles Nodier, Maupassant, Poe, Voltaire, Gautier, Washington Irving, Hawthorne, Valerii Briusov, H. G. Wells, Karel and Josef Capek, Victor Hugo, and others equally prominent....
The wonderful cover illustrations for the magazine--three of which you can see above; click images to see much larger versions--are noteworthy for a disquieting blend of Jugendstil elegance and a macabre decadence. You can see more of these fantastic magazine covers--and read the full post--by clicking here.