I spent three very enjoyable days in Paris last week, giving several lectures on the history of medicine to 25 general practitioners and visiting medical collections with them. The course is offered through the Danish Medical Association and is a great chance to delve deep into the material culture of medical history.
One of the interesting things about the medical museums in Paris is that they are very different from those in, say, London (where I am also part of a similar course), which have been modernized and brought into a more contemporary museological world. The museums in Paris are quite untouched by museological hands, not in the least affected by didactic or paedagogical concerns.
Even if the medical museums in Paris are somewhat old fashioned and unprofessional from a museological standpoint, they are profound repositories of the presence of history — they are places where history can get a hold of you, in very visceral, affective, emotional and profound ways. They are study collections housed in beautiful and historical surroundings, chock full with historical presence. The collections become holes in surface of the present in which one can fall into history. And there is good reason for us not to underestimate the importance of a felt sense of history – particularly for a museum like ours, which is located in a building with a deep history (the Medical Museion is housed in the old Danish Royal Academy of Surgeons from 1787).
We visited the following collections:
The museum consists of Pasteurs old apartment at the institute turned into a museum, some of his original laboratory equipment from all his various research areas, and his tomb, which is quite spectacular, a proper shrine to science done in beautiful golden mosaic from the turn of the 19th century, complete with sarcophagus and death masks.
This massive collection of about 5.000 exquisitely crafted wax models of skin diseases is a real (if somewhat disturbing) gem. The collection is housed in a tailor made hall, complete with handcrafted mid-19th century oak cabinets. It is a quite surreal experience strolling past, say, 25 meters of display cases with all stages of syphilis on a variety of body parts.
Named after the famous anatomist and surgeon Guillame Dupuytren, this impressive and varied collection of pathological anatomical specimen is housed in a single large room at the Université Réne Descartes. The visitors enter through a series of offices where rare books line the walls from floor to ceiling, immediately giving the feel of a proper old school study collection.
Housed in a beautiful hall at the Université Réne Descartes, the museum has a nice collection of objects from the history of medicine, including Laennec’s first prototype of the stethoscope. The room itself is half the experience, an object in itself (Thomas wrote about this collection some years ago, you can read his thoughts and see more images here).
This museum is slightly more traditional, and features a chronological exhibition about hospitals in Paris. Not a very aesthetically or didactically pleasing display but with some interesting objects and paintings, and a beautiful placement on the banks of the Seine.