At the conference ‘Cultures of Anatomical Collections held in Leiden last month, several participants expressed worries about the fate of anatomical and pathological collection around the world.

Following up on this, Ruth Richardson (King’s and Hongkong), Cindy Stelmackowich (New York Academy of Medicine and Carleton University), Rob Zwijnenberg (Leiden) and Rina Knoeff (Leiden) have drafted a Declaration on Human Anatomy / Anatomical Collections — which  they hope as many as possible are willing to sign (read the Declaration below).

Parts of the pathological bone collection that was damaged in the Copenhagen cloudburst, 2 July 2011

If you agree with the text, please send a mail to Rina Knoeff  () and tell her so, preferrably before 10 April (write your title, name, position, and affiliation, like:  ‘Dr. Rina Knoeff, medical historian, Leiden University’). And, importantly, ask others to send similar support mails.

The signed Declaration will be sent to The Lancet, The New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA, and other national and international medical journals; to art journals and history journals; to medical schools worldwide; to medical educators, museums, medical and surgical organizations, as well as to funders and foundations, like the Wellcome and the United Nations — and anywhere else you can think of.

To avoid that the Declaration is sent to important institutions twice, Rina will compile a master sending list. If you have suggestions for recipients, please send her names (and if possible addresses) of the organisations and institutions you think are relevant, so she can add them to the list.

And here’s the declaration text:

Concerning the Conservation and Preservation of Anatomical and Pathological Collections

This declaration is addressed to those responsible or anatomical and pathological museums and collections worldwide.

From: Participants, delegates and supporters of the international conference on ‘Cultures of Anatomical Collections’, held at Leiden University, 15-18 February 2012.

We are scholars, curators and creative artists from across Europe and North America with professional involvements in human anatomy and pathology. We are writing to express our very great concern about the storage and preservation of collections of human anatomy and pathology in some parts of the world.

Almost every medical faculty possesses anatomical and/or pathological collections: human and animal preparations, wax- and other models, as well as drawings, photographs and documents and archives relating to them.

We greet and wholeheartedly commend and admire those institutions in which anatomical and pathological museum materials are celebrated and well-cared for.

However, we are also aware that in some other institutions, such collections are neglected: badly stored, poorly maintained, and rendered inaccessible to medical and other audiences.

Newer teaching methods and preoccupations have sometimes caused these collections to become under-appreciated. Financial constraints and crises can often mean that funding for the conservation, storage, and sometimes even the preservation, of anatomical collections can become de-prioritized. As a result, collections can be in great danger of becoming undervalued and neglected, which may eventually result in permanent damage.

We are aware of more than one recent instance in which curators have been marginalized or lost, and collections placed in inappropriate ‘storage’ conditions, rendering them liable to serious deterioration. Separated from their archives, these collections can lose identity, sometimes irrevocably.

We greatly fear that some uniquely important anatomical collections are currently in danger of being irretrievably damaged and perhaps lost to medical and cultural heritage.

We, the undersigned, wish to raise international awareness concerning the current critical situation for these collections.

Anatomical and pathological collections are medically relevant not only for future generations of medical students and faculty, and for future medical research. They are also important in the history of medicine generally, for the history of the institutions to which they belong, and also for a wider understanding of the cultural history of the body.

These collections sometimes document diseases and medical conditions that are now rare or simply no longer exist, teaching methods and preoccupations currently unfashionable or apparently superseded, and techniques of manufacture and display no longer practised. Collections often hold rare and extraordinary materials that are records of unique scientific investigations, medical conditions, and skills. In some cases these materials are the only documents that allow us to understand key changes and developments in Western medicine, and their dissemination.

Moreover, anatomical collections are crucial to new scholarly inter-disciplinary studies that investigate the interaction between arts and sciences, especially but not exclusively medicine. Such collections allow the study of interactions between anatomists, scientists and anatomical artists, and other occupational groups involved in anatomical and pathological displays. They embody the rich histories related to the display of natural history and medical cabinets; they reveal how new artistic and documentary techniques and materials were adopted by physicians and scientists in other historical periods; they demonstrate how new knowledge about the body and the natural world was presented by and for the medical, scientific and sometimes lay audiences.

Ultimately anatomical collections are important in knowing ourselves and the bodies we are. In this sense they are no less important than world famous artworks like the “Mona Lisa”, the “Venus de Milo” or Michelangelo’s “David”.

We urge medical faculties worldwide to mobilise all possible means in order to protect and preserve the important academic, medical, institutional, scientific and cultural heritage these collections represent.

Moreover we urge funding bodies to recognise and cherish these collections.

The initial signatories were:

Babke Aarts (assistant curator, Utrecht University Museum)
Dr. Philip Beh, MBBS, DMJ, FHKAM(Path), FFFLM (Associate Professor forensic pathology, the University of Hong Kong)
Prof. Montserrat Cabré (historian of science, Universidad de Cantabria)
Prof. P.H. Dangerfield (clinical anatomist, University of Liverpool)
Andries J. van Dam (conservator, Leiden University Medical Centre and directory board member Committee for Conservation, International Council of Museums, ICOM-CC)
J. Carlos Garcia-Reyes (historian of science, CSIC, Barcelona)
Christopher Henry (Director of Heritage, The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh)
Hieke Huistra Msc (medical historian, Leiden University)
Dr. Stephen C. Kenny (historian, University of Liverpool)
Dr. Rina Knoeff (medical historian, Leiden University)
Dr. José Pardo-Tomás (medical historian, CSIC, Spanish Council of Scientific Research)
Dr Ruth Richardson (historian, King’s College, London and Hong Kong University)
Dr. Cindy Stelmackowich (artist, art historian and medical historian, New York Academy of Medicine and Carleton University)
Prof. Laurence Talairach-Vielmas (Professor of English, University of Toulouse (UTM))
Darren Wagner (cultural and medical historian, University of York)
Dr. Alfons Zarzoso (historian and curator, Museu d’Història de la Medicina de Catalunya, Barcelona, CEHIC, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona)
Prof. Dr. Robert Zwijnenberg (Leiden chair of art in relation to the sciences, Leiden University)
Christopher Henry (Director of Heritage, The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburg)

and we hope many others will join!

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