‘Two infant hands in jars, lifelike in lace sleeves’

Thanks to Brill publishers I had the opportunity to review a recent title focused on the History of Anatomical Collections-  Elegant Anatomy. The Eightheenth-Century Leiden Anatomical Collections by the historian of science and medicine Marieke M. A. Hendriksen.

The analysis centres on the 18th century Leiden anatomical collections, currently housed in several institutions – Leiden University Medical Centre’s Anatomical Museum, Leiden Museum Boerhaave, and Leiden based Dutch Museum of History of Science and Medicine, some being on display, while others are kept behind closed doors. In the eight chapters of the book, the author reflects on the various forms taken by these specimens, dividing the analysis between mercury injected specimens, embellished specimens, « monsters », « colonial bodies », and bone specimens. It is Hendriksen’s contention that these artefacts are the result of a certain epistemic culture characterised by the concept of « aesthesis », a world focused on tacit and sensory knowledge, a manipulation of elegance and beauty, and on processes of commodification of bodies and body parts (p. 12).

The book also raises the important issues of the preservation of such collections and their accessibility.

Regardless of how convinging one finds the use of the concept of aesthesis, I think this is an interesting read for all those interested in these topics. It moves from traditional historical accounts and proposes an investigation into the very material layers of these specimens, a « back to the object » approach. This can be illuminating and inspiring for any researcher or museum curator dealing with preserved human remains, and hopefully it will provoke a wider discussion between the fields of material culture studies and history of science.

To read the full review published in Annuaire Roumain d’Anthropologie 53/2016: here

Featured image: Leids Universitair Medisch Centrum (source)

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