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Medical Museums: Past, Present, Future ed. by Samuel J. M. M. Alberti and Elizabeth Hallam (review)
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Reviewed by
Samuel J. M. M. Alberti and Elizabeth Hallam, eds. Medical Museums: Past, Present, Future. London: Royal College of Surgeons of England, 2013. vi + 250 pp. Ill. £25.00 (978–1-904096–21-4).

Medical museums showcase a popular fascination with human remains, and Medical Museums: Past, Present, Future, edited by Samuel Alberti and Elizabeth Hallam, captures that fascination, providing a sort of “grand tour” of some of the world’s [End Page 585] best and most famous medical museums. Each chapter takes the reader to a different museum, and was written by a curator or scholar intimately familiar with the institution and its history. The book is magnificently illustrated, full of glossy color photographs of specimens, drawings, and displays. Those pictures, contained within cleanly and fluidly written narratives that are marred by relatively few endnotes, help to make the book appealing to and approachable by both scholars and a curious public.

While the content of chapters varies, there are themes and questions that recur throughout the book. What does it mean to put human remains on display? Sometimes those remains (or models of them) have been regarded as suitable or even ideal for public viewing—Anna Maerker’s chapter on the building of La Specola to create an enlightened populace offers an example of a museum that was originally intended for a lay public, while James Edmonson’s chapter on the Dittrick Medical History Center and Robert Hicks’s on the Mütter Museum describe two examples of collections that had been intended for medical professionals but that have been refashioned for wider audiences. In other cases, as described in the chapter on the Leiden collection, by Marieke Hendriksen, Hieke Huistra, and Rina Knoeff, or in Eva Åhrén’s on the Karolinska Institute, anatomical collections have had a more limited audience but have played an important part in medical research and teaching. Samuel Alberti and Chris Henry describe the importance of medical museums at the Royal College of Surgeons of England and of Edinburgh to the professional identity of medical professionals and to their heritage. The imagined audiences for museums help to shape their displays, their opening hours, and the meaning that is made of these most human of museum displays.

Elizabeth Hallam’s chapter on the University of Aberdeen’s medical museum introduces another set of themes that permeates many of the chapters—the repurposing, recycling, relocating, and sometimes destruction or decline of collections. The medical collections described in this volume live in a variety of kinds of institutions. Some are a part of larger museums (the Science Museum in London or the Smithsonian, for instance); others, such as Hallam’s Aberdeen collection or the Medical Museum of Copenhagen, are housed in medical schools; while still others, like the Mütter and Morbid Anatomy, are independent (there are many, too, that seem to be quasi-independent, but have found a place within the overarching umbrella of a local university). The various accounts within Medical Museums suggest that institutional location and affiliation will continue to play a central role in determining the futures of medical collections and medical museums. While Robert Bud and Judy Chelnik describe changes in the display of anatomical collections at the Science Museum and Smithsonian (respectively), the collections themselves seem to be safe, unlikely to be broken up or shuttered. Those collections housed in universities and medical schools have faced fragmentation, relocation, and inaccessible storage, as departments’ interest in collections has waxed and waned and as space has been reallocated. Independent museums, meanwhile, must work to convince the public that their collections are relevant, exciting, or macabre, as doing so is necessary for their survival. [End Page 586]

Elizabeth Hallam and Samuel Alberti draw out other common themes in the introduction to the volume, which does an admirable job of integrating diverse chapters on very different museums. They talk about the roles of wonder and beauty in shaping collections, about the ideas of “abnormality” and disease that propagated through them, about technical changes in the way the body has been visualized that are reflected in medical museums, and about the role of remembering that medical museums fulfill. Despite that well-synthesized...