Reading Medical Artifacts, Contemporary Art and Medical Regimes: Curating Anatomica

Cindy Stelmackowich discusses the themes, objects and relevance of Dalhousie Art Gallery’s Anatomica exhibition.


The current exhibition at the Dalhousie Art Gallery entitled Anatomica displays neglected historical medical artifacts and rare books alongside contemporary artworks with anatomical themes. As the invited curator of the exhibition, I set out to plan an exhibition that would address the complex issue of visualization in medicine. In many respects, I wanted the gallery to function as a space for the study of anatomical texts, artifacts, and artworks that all cross the institutional divisions of art, medicine, pedagogy, and practice. I hoped that through juxtaposition and placement of the old with the contemporary, new conversations about biomedical imagery and artifacts would unfold. My intention therefore was to highlight the unmistakable interconnection between Western medicine, the histories of aesthetics, and the cultural representation of human anatomy.

anatomica bonesArtifacts
The history of anatomy and art is well represented in Anatomica through the display of a stunning collection of rare illustrated atlases, surgical textbooks, and brightly colored pathological portfolios borrowed from Dalhousie’s Killam Library Special Collections. These publications feature detailed woodcuts, engravings, mezzotints, lithographs, and hand-coloured chromolithographic plates that realistically depict the human body. These representations contributed to the professionalization and institutionalization of modern Western anatomical science, and show how the human body was posited as an object of scrutiny, knowledge, and regulation over the course of a couple of centuries.

Accompanying the historical anatomical images and rare books is a diverse set of medical teaching models and texts from the Division of Anatomy within the Department of Medical Neuroscience. The very presence of these historical teaching instruments encourages us to question not just past medical knowledge, but the current way in which medical knowledge is conveyed and discussed.

Anatomica 2In most instances, the historical anatomical models and atlases on exhibition are clearly out-moded by present-day standards – seemingly no longer of interest to medical students nor of use to current medical teaching regimes. These older and more “simplistic” images illustrated in the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as the models constructed in the early-20th century from colorful wires, papier-mâché, or early plastics are an entry point for a larger discussion on the ways that visuality and visual images have been crucial tools for biomedical education. These historical materials are significant, and point to the aesthetic, philosophical, and logistical choices that went into making medical aids and biomedical imagery. The historical artifacts on display in Anatomica thereby allow for a conversation on what medicine has borrowed from art history and museum culture in the making of its visual and material culture and its pedagogical paradigms.

Anatomica’s displays of medical artifacts encourage several provocative questions about the way medical imaging has shaped current medical knowledge: Is there a shelf life for medicine’s pedagogical tools, instrumentation, and teaching models, and what factors led to certain medical teaching models and imagery falling out of favor? What exactly have “new” representational strategies and techniques borrowed from the past? Finally, if one is able to connect the historical development of realist codes of scientific illustration, what role has idealization played, or does it continue to play, within modern biomedical imaging techniques and strategies?

Contemporary Art
In addition to inspiring multiple readings and questions about the Western anatomical tradition, the contemporary artworks in Anatomica contribute to the discussion on the biological materiality of human existence. Many of the pieces offer new visual and conceptual vocabularies for understanding the complexities of the body’s anatomy.

Anatomica 3

Anatomical structures and surfaces of the human body emerge through an unexpected variety of mediums in Anatomica, ranging from strips of colored paper, thread and wool, to stacks of daily newspapers, porcelain, chipboard, and even a refurbished vintage pinball machine. In most instances, the artist exploits the physical nature of their materials and places importance on uniquely crafted presentations that simultaneously echo and unhinge the dominant (and somewhat sterile) scientific representation of the human body. The presence of fabric, fibers, threads, and papers in these artworks provides a novel perspective on the delicate tissues and organs of the body. For example, the pink knitted brain created by Halifax artist Sarah Maloney or the fabricated puffy heart/lungs by Toronto artist Lyn Carter, employ domestic feminine crafting techniques to represent the complexities of the body’s anatomy. In addition, the paper quilled pieces by American artist Lisa Nilsson made from thin coloured splices of mulberry paper placed on top of MRI cross-sections of the human body provide a unique way of representing bodily tissues and organs.

anatomica hearts

Anatomica paper quillThe contemporary artworks in Anatomica model bodyscapes in new and innovative ways compared to traditional representational techniques, such as illustration or photographic imaging strategies. Essentially, these nuanced metaphoric transformations represent aesthetic and poetic complexifications of biomedical investigation. Art is clearly a catalyst for biomedical seeing and knowing.

Anatomica is open until March 8, 2015 at the Dalhousie Art Gallery.


Cindy Stelmackowich is an Ottawa-based artist, curator, and academic. She has a PhD in the History and Theory of Art and completed Postdoctoral Fellowships at the New York Academy of Medicine, the German Research Council and with “Situating Science” at University of King’s College and Dalhousie University.

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