From Where I Sit - Remembrance of medicine past

July 5, 2012

Imagine this: a miniature orchestra made of mice skeletons playing a "rhapsody in death". Tiny claws hold minute instruments in front of minuscule music stands, while a petite conductor waves an exquisite little baton. The composition was made in 1860 by the Dutch doctor E.J. van der Mijle.

This extraordinary piece is part of the Leiden University Medical Center's anatomical collections. Yet only a decade ago it came close to being discarded as the kind of curiosity from which serious medicine wanted to dissociate itself. The mouse orchestra was abandoned in a poorly maintained storage space, with predictably damaging results.

It suffered the same fate as so many anatomical preparations and collections worldwide. Newer teaching methods in medicine - particularly a decline in practical anatomy - have left many collections obsolete and unappreciated. Moreover, financial constraints and crises have led to cuts in funding for the conservation, storage and sometimes even preservation of anatomical collections. As a result, they have often been dumped in damp cellars or stuck in stuffy attics where temperatures sometimes breach 50 degsC.

But anatomical collections are important. They not only document scientific investigations, rare medical conditions and skills, but also the interaction between the arts and the sciences, and how artistic conventions were adopted in medicine. In addition, they are often composed from human bodies. This means the collections are not the sole property of medics, but are an important part of our cultural heritage, owned by us all.

Ultimately, anatomical collections are vital for us knowing ourselves and our bodies. In this sense they are no less important than world-famous works of art.

Recently I was privileged to be part of an international group of historians and artists who drafted the Leiden Declaration on Human Anatomy/Anatomical Collections. The declaration is the outcome of a recent conference in Leiden on the history of anatomical collections and the result of concerns shared by conference participants about the fate of many collections. It advocates good custodianship: it is our hope that the declaration will help initiate discussions and action concerning the care of these vital aspects of our international academic and cultural heritage.

Staff at the medical centre increasingly see it as their task to care for the anatomical past. In Leiden's new Anatomical Museum, old collections (some more than 300 years old) have been cleverly integrated into the medical curriculum. Preparations have been reallocated, restored and redefined in terms of new teaching courses, while a whole floor has been reserved for the exhibition of rare historical preparations. So on the wave of "relevant" teaching material also sail 18th-century sailors' tattoos, a child's hand decorated with lace, bladder stones cut out of bodies and monstrous births.

The mouse orchestra has also been relocated: it now takes pride of place in the Faculty Room of Medicine. Its new role is to point out the rich history of the Leiden faculty and the continued excellence of its medical curriculum.

The centre has found a way to re-evaluate its anatomical past. But anatomical museums still face the difficult realisation that the collections must be preserved while museums and universities are financially starved in a Europe where money can be found to bail out banks but rarely to preserve our cultural heritage.

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