Anatomical Theatre: Depictions of the Body, Disease, and Death in Medical Museums of the Western World

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - A photography exhibit examining depictions of the human body, disease and death as portrayed in medical museums opens Sept. 6 at the Alabama Museum of the Health Sciences, part of UAB’s (University of Alabama at Birmingham) Historical Collections. The exhibit contains photos taken at major medical museums in the United States and Europe.

The exhibit, titled Anatomical Theatre, is the work of Joanna Ebenstein, a historian and photographer, who traveled to museums in Italy, England, Scotland, Austria, Hungary, the Netherlands and the United States. Most of the photos are of models used to teach anatomy or the pathology of disease. Some are of actual human remains.

“These artifacts were created to teach medical and surgical students in a time when cadavers were difficult or illegal to come by,” said Ebenstein. “These preserved objects—be they skeletal, actual human remains, or depictions of the body in various forms of media—were invaluable teaching aids—portable, durable and easy to understand.”

The title plays off the days when doctors performed surgery or dissections in an amphitheatre before an audience of students or curious public, commonly referred to as Anatomical Theatre. Ebenstein says popular interest in anatomy is again on the rise, as evidenced by the runaway popularity of Bodies...the Exhibition, Bodyworlds and the success of television shows such as CSI and Dr. 90210.

“The objects on display here have a great deal more to teach us than simply how the lymph node system functions or how to diagnose syphilis,” said Ebenstein. “They function also as cultural/ historical artifacts, revealing the world-views of their eras and cultures, such as notions of gender, race and class, shifting ideas about the ideal body versus the aberration, and the ways in which scientific objects should be presented.”

“They reveal the artistic hand and aesthetic sense of their creators with a surprising and sometimes macabre beauty. And, once we acknowledge these as objects created by individuals making aesthetic choices, it is easy to take the next step and speculate on their nature as art objects,” Ebenstein said.

All contents copyright of Joanna Ebenstein, 2008.