The exhibition The Body Collected displays the heart blood of the medical museum – the anatomical and pathological specimens – as part of a longer history on the uses of human material in medicine leading up the biopsies and blood samples in biobanks.
The main exhibition principle is simple, instantly graspable and captures essential features of the historical development of medicine. Objects in the exhibition will be ordered according to scale ranging from the whole body to its molecules: Full skeletons and embryos, organs in glasses, biopsies, slices of tissue on slides, blood samples and DNA snips. The principle of scale draws on the materiality of the objects, but at the same time mirrors a shift in medical interest towards smaller and smaller units. Scale is:
- A physical organization principle with basis in the material properties of the exhibited objects
- A principle that captures a central development of medical interest from whole bodies, over the anatomized body to molecular medicine
- A way to understand in the relevant unit for understanding disease
The point of departure of the exhibition is the whole body, which was the main unit of medical investigation up to the 18th century. The whole body is, however, only present in the exhibition in the shape of the bodies of the visitors. The first objects exhibited are skeletons and foetuses. Although they are clearly recognizable to us as individuals, they already show the body as opened and divided.
Next step on the scale are the preserved organs. Anatomizing the body was the prevalent mode of investigation in the expanding pathological collections of the 19th century. Diseased organs were cut out and displayed together to form a new whole. They mapped out a landscape of malady where the individual body disappears. Disease was identified with the lesion and the preparations highlight it by isolating it from the rest of the body.
As microscopes allowed tissue and even cells to be studied we move from visible to invisible structures. Small lumps of tissue are prepared, sliced finely stained and studied through microscopes to show the cells of the body and possibly diseased changes. The exhibition shows both the biopsies and the structures revealed by the microscope thus bridging between the visible and invisible.
Research in the latter half of the 20th and into the 21st century has focused on the molecular level – the next level down the scale. Today large amounts of tissue and blood are gathered and stored in biobanks for investigations into the biochemistry of the body. Tiny blood samples taken from new-borns make it possible to investigate genetic and biochemical processes that make disease likely, and to diagnose before any symptoms appear.
At the end of the exhibition the individual body has been not just anatomized but atomized. Divided into immateriality and stored as information. In the code for DNA our individuality may be seen to re-emerge. The mapping of the genome in 2003 did not, however, provide a single key to understanding the body. Medical science still needs to investigate at the whole scale of the body as well as its interaction with the surrounding world. At the end, the visitor is – together with biomedical science – sent back through the scale in the never-ending process of understanding the human body.
The concept poses important questions:
- Is it meaningful to see medical history through scale – providing a striking simplicity – or too simplistic?
- Can moving away from strictly historical or medical forms of organisation allow us to occupy an interesting middle ground?
- Does a physical principle of organisation make us more attentive to the objects than a principle of organisation based on the contexts of the objects?