Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Must-See Exhibition of Astounding Anatomical Artworks: "Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men," Exhibition, Museum of London, Through April 2013

Whilst over in London recently, I spent a fascinating afternoon with curator Jelena Bekvalac as she guided me through her exhibition "Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men" now on view at the Museum of London. The exhibition is not, I am delighted to report, your average history of medicine fare; it functions more as a must-see exhibition of astounding, idiosyncratic, and beautifully macabre anatomical artworks languishing backstage at London Museums than a straightforward history of human dissection in London. And this is, of course, in my opinion, a good thing!

One of Bekvalac's characteristically brilliant curatorial choices was the inclusion of one of my all-time favorite anatomical artworks, a piece which perfectly illuminates the confounding interweaving of the spectacular, the educational, and the macabre which draws me to many early medical artifacts: the Royal Academy's "Anatomical Crucifixion of James Legg" (top three images). This piece is a plaster life-size écorché--or skinless muscle man figure, a common art trope stretching back to The Renaissance. But this écorché is no mere artistic depiction; instead, it is an actual plaster cast taken directly from the the body of executed murderer James Legg after it was flayed and crucified (!!!) by three members of the Royal Academy around 1801 "... in order to settle an artistic debate...  to prove their belief that most depictions of the Crucifixion were anatomically incorrect." You can find out more about this astounding artifact at this recent blog post.

Other highlights of the exhibition include a fabulous early 19th century Florentine wax anatomical woman on loan from The Science Museum/Wellcome Collection (4th down; more on that piece here); some wonderful Joseph Towne waxes and moulages from The Gordon Museum (8th and 9th down); some of my all-time favorite memento mori figurines, also from The Science Museum/Wellcome Collection (5th down); a handbill advertising the display of an Anatomical Venus on Regent Street in the early 19th century (9th down); an artful preparation of part of a human stomach injected to demonstrate the blood vessels by Edward Jenner (6th down); a salacious late 18th century watercolor entitled 'The Persevering Surgeon' by Thomas Rowlandson (10th down); an original anatomical drawing of a human skeleton for a anatomy student's ticket from 1840 (11th down); a mid-19th century skeletal preparation of a boy, dissected in a somewhat anguished pose (on loan from the St. Bart's Pathology Museum); and a number of anatomical artworks by Jacques Fabien Gautier D'Agoty and other artists of the time.

For any Morbid Anatomy readers in the London area, I highly recommend a visit to this exhibition; thanks to Bekvalac's eye and excellent knowledge of rarely seen and idiosyncratically spectacular pieces backstage in local collections, it is much more interesting than you might expect by the title!

More about the exhibition, from the press release:
Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men
Until 14 April 2013

In 2006, Museum of London archaeologists excavated a burial ground at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel. What they found was both extraordinary and unexpected.

The excavation revealed some 262 burials. In the confusing mix of bones was extensive evidence of dissection, autopsy and amputation, bones wired for teaching, and animals dissected for comparative anatomy.

Dating from a key period – that of the Anatomy Act of 1832 – the discovery is one of the most significant in the UK, offering fresh insight into early 19th century dissection and the trade in dead bodies.

Now, 180 years later, you can uncover this intriguing story in Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men, a major new exhibition at the Museum of London. Bringing together human and animal remains, exquisite anatomical models and drawings, documents and original artefacts, the exhibition reveals the intimate relationship between surgeons pushing forward anatomical study and the ‘Resurrection men’ who supplied them; and the shadowy practices prompted by a growing demand for corpses.

You’ll discover the story of Bishop, Williams and May – London’s Burke and Hare – and find out how the excavation findings shed new light on the case of an alleged resurrectionist. You’ll also pore over unrivalled evidence of surgery and amputation – before anaesthetic – and of dissection, anatomical teaching and students practising their craft.  

As the exhibition draws to a close, you’ll be encouraged to debate the Anatomy Act, reflect on medical ethics and cultural attitudes today, and ask what questions still remain.

It may leave you asking: who really owns your body?
This exhibit will be on view through April 14th, 2013; You can find out more here. Please click on images to see larger versions; most are my own; 6th and 11th down are both © Science Museum / Science and Society Picture Library; the 10th down is from the collection of the Hunterian Museum, London.

Images top to bottom:
  1. "Anatomical Crucifixion of James Legg," 1801, Royal Academy
  2. "Anatomical Crucifixion of James Legg," 1801, Royal Academy, detail
  3. "Anatomical Crucifixion of James Legg," 1801, Royal Academy, detail
  4.  Female wax anatomical model showing internal organs 1818, The Science Museum
  5. Memento Mori Figures, The Science Museum
  6. Part of human stomach dissected by Edward Jenner 1790-1823 C Science Museum, Science Museum, Science and Society Picture Library.jpg
  7. Wax moulage by Joseph Towne showing hand with smallpox, 19th century, The Gordon Museum
  8. Wax model of human torso by Joseph Towne, 19th century, The Gordon Museum
  9. Handbill advertising display of anatomical Venus, 1810-1840 
  10. Thomas Rowlandson, 'The Persevering Surgeon', late 18th century, from the collection of the Hunterian Museum, London
  11. Anatomical drawing of a skeleton 1840 C Science Museum, Science and Society Picture Library

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