I’ve never been very interested in seeing the exhibit Bodies, although I’ve had countless opportunities to go.
I’m not sure why, exactly — a couple hundred bodies, preserved with polymer, dissected in interesting ways is just the sort of creepy thing that would generally be right up my alley. At this very moment, in fact, my desk is covered with photographs, sketches and diagrams of the skull of Phineas Gage, a man who survived after a three foot, seven inch tamping iron was blown through his face and skull in 1848. I’m writing about him, and so I keep accumulating more images. They’re really wince inducing. My husband has told me he’s started to avert his gaze whenever he passes my desk. All of which is to say it’s not squeamishness that’s kept me away from Bodies. Maybe it’s this.
Anyway, my lack of interest in Bodies should not be interpreted as a lack of interest in medical museums. I’ve been researching them in the way that I suppose some people research beaches, or spas: a little obsessively and with great enthusiasm.
There are a great many museums of medical history around the world. The National Library of Medicine has a handy list, divided by country. Happily, there are plenty in the United States. Some of these are general medical history museums, like the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, and some are more specialized, like for instance, the Museum of Vision, in San Francisco, dedicated to ophthalmology, clearly a gem that deserves more attention from tourists, if just for the exhibit on the history of spectacles.
The list is not entirely comprehensive — there are smaller collections that are not represented, like the Warren Anatomical Museum in Boston, which exhibits the skull of Phineas Gage. (Also the tamping iron, which makes the museum’s acronym, WAM, quite apropos.) And just to prepare you for another disappointment: I’m sure the Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health will leap off the page for you in the same way it did for me. But alas, I’m sorry to report that it is online only. Although, on the other hand: what a website.
Alison J. Stein
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