I recently moved to London, England. For a Victorian scholar, living in England’s capital certainly has its perks, including the fact that I get to visit wonderful exhibitions, like the Wellcome Collection’s “Exquisite Bodies.” The Wellcome collection brings together the artefacts of entrepreneur and traveller Henry Wellcome, showcasing his interests in medicine, health, and sexuality. The permanent collection, called “Medicine Man,” includes such eclectic items as Napoleon’s toothbrush, late-nineteenth-century glass eyes, a brass corset, Darwin’s walking stick (made of whalebone and ivory, with a rather frightening skull perched on top), Lord Nelson’s razor, and Disraeli’s death mask.
The current exhibit, with the full title “Exquisite Bodies, or the Curious and Grotesque Story of the Anatomical Model,” is small but rich with finds for anyone interested in Victorian bodies and sexuality. The models were taken from Joseph Kahn’s Anatomical and Pathological Museum in London; the amazing work of Joseph Towne, who was anatomical model-maker for Guy’s Hospital for over fifty years; the embryological models made by Germans Adolf Ziegler and Friedrich Ziegler; La Grand Musée de l’Homme, a fairground attraction in Brussels; and the Museo Roca, a waxworks museum in Barcelona.
While some models were made for medical study, others, especially those exhibited at La Grand Musée de l’Homme, were first and foremost sensational tourist attractions. Disease was a theme running through most of the collections, and La Grand Musée had a large collection of detached genitalia infected with sexually transmitted disease (or venereal disease, as it was then termed). I was initially amused by the fact that these were all placed at the back of the exhibition room, hidden behind dramatic red curtains, as they likely would have been at the Musée. The Wellcome even placed a sign warning visitors of their graphic and disturbing nature, and didn’t light up the models, making it difficult to see them. The simple fact, however, is that they were just as alarming and repellent as they would have been to Victorian audiences. Despite our increased knowledge of medicine and sexually transmitted diseases, most attendees didn’t stay behind the curtains for long.
La Grand Musée and the Museo Roca insisted that one of their goals in showcasing body parts (sometimes as innocuous as arms) infected with tuberculosis, alcoholism, or syphilis was to warn pleasure-seeking Victorians. The Museo Roca attempted to lure visitors in with the slogan, “The Ravages of the Red Light District.” Despite claims to inform the public, such displays rely on and exploit sensationalism and they were sometimes paired with other “freaks” such as bearded women and conjoined twins. The “Exquisite Bodies” exhibition as a whole was made up of many pregnant female models (with their wombs open for view), embryos, diseased bodies, and “freaks.” This list seems to showcase the dual uses of the anatomical model: medical knowledge and shock value.
The museum pairs Henry Wellcome’s artefacts, the permanent collection called “Medicine Man,” with another permanent collection called “Medicine Now, in which they show medical and scientific progress since 1936, the year of Wellcome’s death. With items such as a portion control kit and a compression garment worn after abdominal liposuction, the museum cleverly compares our own idiosyncrasies with those of the Victorians. It also made me wonder about contemporary anatomical models, especially the Body Worlds exhibit by created by Gunther von Hagens, a controversial exhibition of preserved human bodies. Is the exposed or detached human body simply inherently alarming, or was there something unique about the Victorians desire to preserve the body in wax?