Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Anatomical Collections as Public History

The third project, worked on by dr. Rina Knoeff, is a synthesising project directed at studying the Leiden anatomical collections as important parts of ‘public history’. It will use the results of the other projects in order to analyse anatomical collections (their focus, significant silences, audiences, values etc.) as important parts of cultural heritage.

Robert Zwijnenberg

Project description

Anatomical collections have always appealed to the public. Yet, the relationships between  academic medicine, the anatomical museum and popular culture are extremely problematic. The history of anatomical collections (and the history of the Leiden collections is no exception) shows how – due to the development of the scientific way of looking – the collections were withdrawn (by professional medics managing the collections) from the public gaze and thereby made invisible to a broader public. What remained was a ‘shocking’ fairground form of museum continued for the public (such as the freak preparations found in university museums). Today’s anatomical shows are re-opening the collections (to the chagrin of many professional medics) with a big dose of visual art. Their makers often claim to work in a historical tradition (and adopt images of, for instance, the homo perfectus, but the controversies surrounding these modern shows reveal how the use of anatomical heritage is accompanied by tensions. Von Hagens’ above-mentioned exhibition Körperwelten is a case in point. 

Public history offers a theoretical framework for posing challenging questions on the relationships between anatomical collections, the medical profession and the public. It has been defined as a set of theories, assumptions and practices guiding the preservation, interpretation and presentation of historical artefacts and texts in conjunction with and for the public. It investigates how past events and artefacts are fabricated and operate in the present and it explicitly analyses how and to whom the past is communicated.  This project adopts these questions in order to investigate the reciprocal relation between audiences (public as well as professional) and content (what is on show?) of anatomical collections. It analyses how the meanings of anatomical objects have changed over time and in relation to the public. In so doing it also investigates the divide between ‘professionals’ (in this case in medicine) and ‘amateurs’. On a meta-level it analyses how these changes affect the categories of ‘collection’, ‘heritage’ and ‘the public’. 

The research has an important historical component. Not only does it use the results from the other projects, it will also begin with a historical survey of the fate of the Leiden collections after the nineteenth century. This involves literature research as well as interviews with past and present curators. This will not only complete the historical overview, but is also meant to clarify the invisible mechanisms behind the making of anatomical museums and their relations with public audiences and medical professionals. 

At the same time this project  will use the history of the Leiden anatomical collections from the seventeenth century onwards as a case study in order to pose exciting questions on what it is that makes an anatomical collection: Who decides on the focus, significant silences (the exhibits that are left out) and boundaries of collections? How are historical specimens presented in today’s museum and how are their meanings transformed so as to fit today’s interests? How do those who manage the collections regulate public curiosity? In aid of analysing these questions the Leiden academic collections will also be compared to public exhibitions such as Körperwelten. This will lead to a better understanding of the reciprocal relation between those looking at the collections and specific ways of exhibiting the anatomical body. 

Expected results

The Anatomical Museum of Leiden University Medical Centre has recently been refurbished and although the museum is primarily directed at medical teaching, the museum board is seeking ways to make parts of the collections publicly accessible. Yet, faced with the recent controversies surrounding the (public) exhibition of human material, they are struggling with the questions of which exhibits should be on show, for what purposes (teaching or general interest?) and how they should be exhibited. The popular anatomical museum used to be ‘a notorious flagrant transgressor, a public institution devoted to the display of things that should not be displayed’. It is tempting to also view exhibitions such as Körperwelten in this way. Yet, it does not do to dismiss public interest in the anatomical body as mere ‘popularisation’ or ‘entertainment’. It is necessary to develop new positions on the relationships between academic anatomy and public interest in the body. Studying the history of the Leiden anatomical collections in relation to public audiences will also prove helpful in the search for ‘respectable’ ways of going public.

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