- Morbid Curiosities: Medical Museums in Nineteenth-Century Britain
This short but richly detailed study of British medical museums in the nineteenth century examines the ways in which dead bodies were fragmented, preserved, circulated, exchanged, and refashioned into material culture in the medical museum. Not merely another history of human remains, this study focuses on the interplay of nineteenth-century cultures of display—fairgrounds, freak shows, private cabinets, grand museums—and the communities of practice that displayed [End Page 282] collections within the broader development of pathology as a new discipline. In five core chapters, Samuel Alberti sets out to describe the conceptual and physical "afterlives" of medical and surgical specimens—how they came to be in certain collections, what happened to them once they were there, how human body parts became "things" in medical museums, and who used them. From "monsters in jars" to carefully prepared histological tissues and microscopial cabinets, Alberti seeks to bridge the popular and educational uses of medical museums from the Enlightenment "museum oeconomy" to the more formal sites for medical education in the later nineteenth century. In doing so he demonstrates how difference or "abnormality" was constructed in the medical museum but also how pathological collections were shaped within evolving understandings of disease.
The book begins by "situating pathology" within various exhibitionary and geographical locales: the private anatomy school, universities, hospital museums, royal colleges, pathological societies, and commercial anatomy exhibits. In a useful comparison, Alberti examines various collections large and small, in London, Edinburgh, Dublin, Glasgow, and Manchester. He describes how different perspectives shaped the medical museum and by extension pathology as a discipline. The narrative then turns to the mechanics of "collecting pathology" and explains the intricacies of nineteenth-century medical museum acquisition. Alberti examines the complex path that bodies and specimens followed after being harvested from hospital wards, purchased at auction, or donated to prestigious institutions. Fragmentation and epistemic instability are key themes in Alberti's study. He focuses on the objectification and dehumanization of the individual as specimens in the medical marketplace.
In elucidating the various ways human remains became material culture Alberti examines the "ways of working" or rather the social and material interaction within the medical museum. He nicely (and sometimes graphically) illuminates the arduous work of production, then turning to how particular audiences experienced pathological collections. The museum was an educational resource; thus, it was acceptable for visitors to study and learn from specimens. However, gawking, disgust, and titillation was eschewed. Alberti does a wonderful job of drawing out the tension between visitors and the curators who attempted to limit and condition the range of acceptable responses. In perhaps his most interesting chapter, "Displaying Pathology," Alberti examines how specimens were reassembled and "remade" in the medical museum. Influenced by Marilyn Strathern's anthropological work, Alberti draws parallels with the ideas of "partible personhood" and the "multi-authored body." He provides a brief examination of Body Worlds and the recent legislative amendments to the Human Tissue Acts, Anatomy Regulations, and Coroner's Rules, and concludes with a short account of how the function of medical museums changed over the course of the twentieth century.
Influenced by John Pickstone's "Ways of Knowing," Alberti aims to illuminate the "meaning" of specimens in museums. He achieves this goal admirably. The attempted analysis of major trends in medical practice and ideas, however, is hampered by any lack of detail to the nature and specific content of the various collections he examines. He might have compared case books and autopsy reports [End Page 283] with the catalogues and specimens to draw out the complexities of medicine in the nineteenth century. Physicians collected and preserved organs and tissues harvested from "interesting cases," usually those that presented the greatest challenge or were unfamiliar and obscure. Though Alberti continually refers to the "interesting case," one never gets a sense of what this was or what diseases were of particular concern. More attention to these aspects of the museum collections would have supported his...