Morbid Curiosities: Medical Museums in Nineteenth-Century Britain by Samuel JMM Alberti
Synopsis: Morbid Curiosities is the first comprehensive study of nineteenth-century medical museums in Britain. It traces the afterlives of diseased body parts, asking how they came to be in these collections, what happened to them there, and who used them.
Pathologists dismembered the dead body and preserved it, whether by injection or by storage in fluid, thereby transforming it into material culture. Thus fragmented body parts followed complex paths – harvested from hospital wards, given to a prestigious institution, or once again fragmented at auction. Human remains acquired new meanings as they were exchanged and, once in museums, specimens were re-integrated to form a physical map of disease. Curators juxtaposed organic specimens with paintings, photographs, and models, and rendered them legible with extensive catalogues – paper, wax, and text formed a series of overlapping systems. They were intended to standardize the educational experience that was the ostensible purpose of most of the museums, and yet visitors refused to be policed, responding powerfully, whether with wonder or disgust.
Morbid Curiosities is a history of the material culture of medical knowledge, from prepared human remains to models, illustrations, and even architectural pillars and galleries.
Published: June 2011 | ISBN: 9780199584581
Mini-bio: Sam Alberti is Lecturer in Art Gallery and Museum Studies at the Centre for Museology and Research Fellow at the Manchester Museum, University of Manchester. – Manchester University Press
Ideally, I’d recommend everything both Samuel J.M.M. Alberti and Fay Bound Alberti have ever written, which ranges from taxidermy to the symbolism of the human heart, but this is a good starting point, tracing the afterlives of bodies in nineteenth-century medical museums. Analysing how the collection and preservation of body parts transformed them into material culture, Alberti’s clear and concise work reveals that it wasn’t just anatomical illustration that reimagined the body as a roadmap of disease. – from 10 Great Books on the History of Medicine
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