Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Plague Buboes and Preserved Primates – The Morbid Anatomy/Museum Vrolik “Amsterdam Weekend of Anatomy”: Guest Post by Schemenkabinett

The following is a review of the recent Morbid Anatomy/Museum Vrolik Amsterdam Weekend of Anatomy originally published by Katharina von Oheimb and Parm von Oheimb on their German-language Schemenkabinett blog. A translation of the piece, especially for Morbid Anatomy readers, follows; you can see the original piece by clicking here. To get on the Morbid Anatomy mailing list and thus be alerted to similar events in the future, click here.
In Amsterdam, we devoted ourselves to the field between anatomy and arts for a whole weekend.

He was called the “Artist of Death.” On the screen in the small lecture room at the Academic Medical Center in Amsterdam, a surreal scene appears, showing human fetal skeletons that seem to wipe away their tears with handkerchiefs made of preserved meninges. It is one of Frederick Ruysch’s (1638-1731) anatomical dioramas (top image). With his preparations and dioramas, Dutch anatomist and botanist Ruysch created unique works of art. The attendees in the lecture room look with fascination at his works. More than sixty participants have gathered at the weekend of 10th and 11th May 2014 to take part at the “Amsterdam Weekend of Anatomy” at Museum Vrolik. The event was brought into being by Joanna Ebenstein from Morbid Anatomy and Laurens de Rooy, the director of Museum Vrolik. Together with the other attendees--who came mostly came from the Netherlands, but also from Belgium, Germany, Great Britain, Poland, and the USA--we are listening to the first talks of this day. We will encounter Frederick Ruysch several times again during the next days, because his connection between scientific accuracy and artistic presentation can be discovered in every corner of this place.

Marieke Hendriksen reports in her talk about the puzzle of the beaded babies, which she investigated for her dissertation. An image on the screen shows a newborn baby in a jar filled with preservational liquid, decorated with beaded strings around its neck and wrists. In total, only eleven of such decorated specimens are known. All of them are from Dutch collections and from between 1780 and 1810. Hendriksen explains how she thoroughly investigated historical collections and how she examined literature to find evidence for the origin of these unique specimens. Probably, they stem from Dutch colonies; this puzzle, however, has not been finally solved yet.

In the afternoon, we participate in a wax modeling course (second image down). Medical wax models, so called moulages, are lifelike moldings of diseased body parts. They served for the training of physicians, but have also been used for explaining disease symptoms to the public. Due to the plasticity of the presentations, they have been clearly superior to drawings. For the creation of moulages, modeling material has often been applied directly to diseased parts of skin to obtain highly realistic moldings. In this way, whole series could be created, which documented the development of diseases or the effect of therapies. Only with the emergence of color photography, moulages became less important.
As we are entering the course room, pale wax faces already wait at our workplaces. During the next hours, we add disease symptoms and several wounds to them under the tutelage of Eleanor Crook. The London-based artist Crook has specialized in the creation of moulages. In courses like this, she explains impressively how plastic plague buboes can be formed from a special wax and later get colorized in bluish black. After finishing the course, we proudly bag our grotesque faces that are terribly disfigured by plague and syphilis and meet for the end of the evening at the exhibition room of Museum Vrolik, which has been exclusively opened for us. In the midst of all the showcases full of medical specimens, we have the opportunity to acquaint with the highly interesting group of participants.

The next day starts with a talk about the history of the moulages held by the Academic Medical Center in Amsterdam (third image down). These artfully designed moldings stem from the early 20th century. Soon afterwards, we find ourselves in the part of the building complex, where the moulages are stored today. Faces that are badly marked by diseases but appear strangely alive, as well as arms, hands, and genitals are stored in showcases and cabinets. Most of these medical artworks have been created at the island Sumatra and present tropical skin diseases.

Afterwards, the preparator Inge Dijkman gives us an introduction to her work at Museum Vrolik (bottom image). She has brought a small selection of specimens with her. Very cautious, Dijkman lifts an almost 10 cm large, preserved fetus out of the liquid and shows it to us. She explains that this fetus had implanted outside the uterine cavity. During such a so-called ectopic pregnancy, the fetus dies in most cases.
After this exceptional insight into the preparation laboratory, we take part at a guided tour to selected specimens of Museum Vrolik, where we learn about several fascinating details. Willem Vrolik (1801-1863), for example, one of the founders of the collection, was the first person that recorded multiple congenital disorders. He described, for instance, the first known case of the Smith-Lemli-Opitz syndrome. Individuals who suffer from this syndrome are not able to produce cholesterol. The external characteristics of the syndrome are diverse and range from female genitalia in combination with a male chromosome set, to malpositions of hands and feet, and to supernumerary fingers and toes. Depending on the severity of symptoms, where internal organs are also mostly limited in their functionality, this genetic disease often ends fatally.

At the end of our weekend at Museum Vrolik, a guided tour leads to the collection rooms in the basement of the Academic Medical Center, which are usually closed to the public. During the Cold War, a nuclear bombproof underground hospital was installed here. Today, the thick walls and heavy door locks bring the former function still to mind. Curator Laurens de Rooy guides us to the first room, which contains parts of the anthropological and zoological collections. In the second room, multiple specimen jars are stored in shelves. Animals with malformations are a main focus of the collection and have been used for comparative anatomy studies. In the third room, dry preparations are stored. Various preserved skulls of humans and other primates stand close together. One of our highlights in this room is the artfully created historical dry preparation of a human arm, where the pattern of tendons is clearly visible. By leaving the underground rooms, our “Amsterdam Weekend of Anatomy” ends.
During the two days at Museum Vrolik, we could gather various exciting impressions and meet a lot of interesting people. The event connected arts and science in a unique way and was worthwhile in all respects. Due to the high approval of the “Amsterdam Weekend of Anatomy,” the event is planned to take place again next year in a similar form.
  1. Anatomical diorama by Frederik Ruysch (engraving by Cornelius Huyberts)
  2. In the course it is learned how medical max models are created. Photo courtesy of Katharina von Oheimb and Parm von Oheimb.
  3. Collection of historical moulages at the Academic Medical Center. Photo courtesy of Katharina von Oheimb and Parm von Oheimb.
  4. Insights into different preparation techniques. Photo courtesy of Katharina von Oheimb and Parm von Oheimb.

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