In the process of selecting objects for a new exhibition, I (re)discovered this room:

It is located beneath the roof of the museum, and contains, as the picture shows, literally hundreds of small glass vials with various chemical labels. Most are empty, but a few still has the original contents.

Aside from being a treasure chest for our exhibition, the room also reminded me of the degree to which being in a house filled with things makes me think differently about the history of medicine. This might not exactly be a groundbreaking insight, but is bears repeating often. The material environment we occupy is foundational for our cognitive states. This sentiment is expressed in the following quote from Claude Lévi-Strauss, which, although it is aimed at ethnographical collectors, seem to me to ring true for medical historical collections as well:

The museographer enters into close contact with the objects: a spirit of humility is inculcated in him by all the small tasks (unpacking, cleaning, maintenance, etc.) he has to perform. He develops a keen sense of the concrete through the classification, identification, and analysis of the objects in the various collections. He establishes indirect contact with the native environment by means of tools and comes to know this environment and the ways in which to handle it correctly: Texture, form, and in many cases, smell, repeatedly experienced, make him instinctively familiar with distant forms of life and activities. Finally, he acquires for the various externalizations of human genius that respect which cannot fail to be inspired in him by the constant appeals to his taste, intellect, and knowledge made by apparently insignificant objects.

Claude Lévi-Strauss, “The place of anthropology in the social sciences and the problems raised in teaching it,” in Jacobson and Schoepf (eds.): Structural Anthropology, 1963.

Hopefully, being in the room and selecting vials for the exhibition will nudge us curators towards an exhibition that tries to establish a sense of how foundational the relationship between the individual and the physical environment is. Showing how what we inhabit is what we get, so to speak.

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