Bodies in the museum

”In every physiological dissection we create a mixture of «part elements» and real «whole members»… One overlooks that the organism is, of course, articulated (differentiated into members) but does not consist of members. – Kurt Goldstein

Last week my latest research came out: ‘Breaking Down the Body and Putting it Back: Displaying Knowledge in the “Francisc I. Rainer” Anthropological Collection’ (which can be read here). The idea behind the text was to talk about the various bodies that became part of Francisc Rainer (1874-1944)’s early 20th century anthropological collection.

Rainer’s case is important in a local context, as he introduced anthropological concepts and questions in Romania, gathering a collection “seen as an oriented and structured goal subsumed to anthropological methods and questions and linked to specific display strategies.”In this collection one could found skulls, archaeological skeletal remains, embryos’ photographs, plaster casts, drawings and maps, anthropological photographs etc. Around this collection, the Institute of Anthropology was born in Bucharest, in 1940.

From a different point of view, tracing the history of his collection helps one understand how a discipline developed in a local context at the intersection of  wider networks of disciplinary connections with European research centres and personal biography/local intellectual tradition.

Every body has their story, but most of them have been lost. Thus, in my quest for understanding Rainer’s “organized network of obsessions”, in Roland Barthes words, I’ve stumbled upon a picture where a scientists’ ambition and vision met with thousands of individual’s biographies, from which only a handful of details have survived. Sometimes there are body parts with occasional personal information, at other times there are only faces captured on camera or contours drawn on white sheets of paper, numbers in forms or images on glass plates.

As one story of an individual -from 1898- goes:

“On 16th of January 1897, at the surgery of the Saint Spiridon hospital in Bucharest, Ciobanu Iordachi, aged 65, a worker from Lețcani, presented himself with an ulceration where he rested his foot which prevented him from walking (Bothezat 1898). The diagnosis exposed a double congenital club foot. A month later the patient died of pneumonia, but his remains were dissected, his case being deemed interesting by dr. P. Bothezat, who wrote and published a short anatomical description the following year.

From the performed autopsy we could only obtain both thighs with their legs, so we can only present the results of dissecting these pieces. It would of course have been interesting if we could make a study of the spine’s bone marrow lesions, especially today when almost everybody agrees in considering congenital equs varus caused by a nervous system lesion. However, the deformity which affected our sick man, being marked and the anatomical lesions quite advanced, the anatomical description of only the legs is interesting enough, because it can be made extensively. (Bothezat 1898) ” (Ion 2015)

This short account is illustrative for the way in which certain individuals became interesting bodies in the eyes of the anatomist, who then chose to preserve and archive them.

By the time I have finished the text I felt that these past individuals still did not get the attention they should have and so many little things did not find their way in the final manuscript. However, if I were to be asked now, I would happily say that this article was an opportunity to quote Virginia Woolf- an aspect which was met with strong criticism from one of the reviewers-, Roland Barthes (and to remember a lovely talk with a friend on him) and to publish a cool image of a ‘dinosaur’.


Fig. 12 in Ion 2015

Ion A. 2015. Breaking Down the Body and Putting it Back: Displaying Knowledge in the “Francisc I. Rainer” Anthropological Collection. In C. Dobos and A. Ion (eds.), Bodies / Matter: narratives of corporeality, Martor 20, 25-49.




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