Thomas and I have written this abstract for the “Sculpture and Touch” symposium to be held at the Courtauld Art Institute, London, 16-17 May next year (see earlier post here).
Due to the profound impact of vision on modern Western culture, the history of medicine has mostly been conceived in ocular terms. This is true both for medical historiography and the way that medical collections, no matter how object dominated, are exhibited in museums. However, given the crucial role of touch in medical practice as well as the abundance of three-dimensional objects in medical museum collections, the emphasis on the visual neglects an essential aspect of medical history and medical objects.
In this paper, we will focus on the tactile dimensions of medicine as manifested in medical museum collections. Whereas many of these objects are visually evocative, they were made, or preserved, to fulfil other purposes then the pure visual. Even objects intended for the enhancement of vision, bear witness through their very forms and materials, of a sculptural function that had to do as much with the sense of touch. The question is of course, whether this lost sensorial dimension can be brought back into historiographical and museological awareness without taking recourse into metaphors and representation. If only indirectly, medical objects do tell us something about the role that touch had in different historical periods. Besides giving concrete examples of such objects, we will suggest ways in which the sense of touch can be employed to reinvent curatorial and display practices in museums. We will also suggest how current theoretical reflections such as “production of presence” and “haptic vision” can be used to approach the history of medicine through the sense of touch.