Researching cultural influences on biomedical imaging and instrumentation at medical museums in the US and Europe.
Laura Splan received a research grant to travel to Chicago, Illinois; Washington, D.C.; London, England; and Rome and Florence, Italy; to study the history of medical instruments, imaging and procedures, particularly the unique histories behind instrument invention and development within their respective cultural and scientific contexts. Splan's creative practice interrogates cultural relationships between form and function. The Jerome Foundation Grant supports Splan's travel and research that informs her conceptually based work, examining complex cultural histories within science.
Narrative report for travel and study conducted in 2009.
In London, I had several wonderful meetings with very generous curators, archivists, and historians.
I met with Justin Cavernelis-Frost, Trust Archivist at the Archives & Museum at St. Bartholomew's Hospital. He gave me a personalized tour and introduced me to the history of the surgical instrument kit as an heirloom object. He also explained the history of medical photography at St. Bart’s.
Kevin Brown gave me a tour of the Alexander Fleming Laboratory where he is Trust Archivist & Curator. He shared the fascinating history of penicillin including early marketing efforts to introduce such products as penicillin lipstick. He also explained how Fleming created “germ paintings” using microbes of varying colors in Petri dishes to form figurative images. Fleming also presented inert penicillin specimens encased in medallions as gifts to several colleagues.
Karen Howell, the curator of the Old Operating Theatre, Museum & Herb Garret, showed me key artifacts in their collection that explored the evolution of medical instrument design. She introduced me to several surprising objects that I had not seen before such as Gibson Spoons. Hidden in the roof of a church, the 300 year old herb garret houses the only surviving 19th century operating theatre, complete with wooden operating table and observation stands, from which spectators witnessed surgery performed without anaesthesia or antiseptics. The oak beamed garret was also used for the storage and curing of medicinal herbs.
At the Wellcome Museum, I met with Dr. Carole Reeves, Outreach Historian of the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine and Ross MacFarlane, Content & Interpretation Officer. They were so generous as to spend four hours with me discussing Henry Wellcome and the history of his fascinating collection documenting the development of medicine through the ages and across cultures. They also showed me how to use their extensive online database of objects and information.
I had a private person tour with Neil Handley, Curator of the British Optical Association Museum whose collection includes historic spectacles and lenses, pince-nez, opera glasses, contact lenses, opticians' equipment, orthoptic devices, models of eye disease, paintings and prints. He introduced me to several intriguing artifacts that exemplified the intersections of fashion, culture, and science such as hand fans with spy-glasses built into them as well as “Jealousy Glasses”.
Sarah Pearson, Curator at the Hunterian Museum pointed out to me the correlation between manufacturing as well as advances in medicine such as anesthesia and sterilization to the number of instruments available on the market. The specialization of medical fields had a significant impact on the history of medical instruments.
The rest of my Europe travel was spent exploring collections in other cities without arranged meetings. In Paris, I went to the Musee D'histoire De La Medecine where I saw another of Fleming’s Medallions as well as a piece of furniture constructed out of human matter (bile, bone, blood). I also went to the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle, which has a large collection of preserved animal specimens.
In Florence, I saw examples of early scientific instrumentation at the Museum of the History of Science. I also saw one of the world’s most important collections of Moulages (wax anatomical models) at La Specola.
In Rome, I went to the allusive Museo Storico Nazionale Dell' Arte Sanitaria where I seemed to have the entire collection to myself. The collection contained many moulages as well as preserved specimens. Everything was displayed in exquisite wood vitrines, which were at odds with the somewhat dilapidated state of most of the specimens. It was surreal and uncanny, to say the least.
In Berlin, I went to the Museum Der Charite, which has the best presentation in terms of presenting a cohesive linear history of western medicine. I also had a lot of very specific information relevant to the history of the Holocaust, Eugenics, and Nazi Medical Experiments.