What goes through your mind when looking upon a particularly vivid object on display in a medical museum? Do you turn away in disgust, or is that initial reaction tempered by curiosity? If you are the sort of person whose reaction is the former (or the sort who would never willingly enter a medical museum at all), then the pictures displayed here are not for you; but if you belong to the
latter category, I invite you to indulge that curiosity further. If you do, you will find an assortment of my photographs, drawings and prints that reflect my reactions to these fascinating but discomforting objects.
What one will see here is not a random collection of bones and things in jars, but a record of an important segment of our shared medical heritage. These anatomical preparations represent the intersection of science, culture, emotion and myth. Through these oddities, one may catch snippets of the evolution of modern medicine based on science rather than superstition.
In these images you are also viewing the bodily remains of those who suffered in life, but in death have helped to unravel the mysteries of their diseases and injuries. As Gretchen Worden (1947-2004) once said about the objects displayed in her own Mütter Museum, “While these bodies may be ugly, there is a terrifying beauty in the spirits of those forced to endure these afflictions, especially in the past when so many were doomed to horrible and prolonged suffering before their death for lack of effective treatment and cure.”†
While every specimen may be a record of personal tragedy, I would ask that you try to see not merely a misshapen limb or strange baby in a jar but to consider how many were healed of disease and how many more babies are not in jars because of what was learned from that one. It is
through the study of what goes wrong that we have learned not only the mechanisms of disease but how healthy bodies function. Most recently, congenital deformities have helped decipher the human genome, and these preparations continue to instruct.
In 1998, I began to explore my long-time fascination with human oddities — those differently bodied people who once worked in carnival and circus sideshows: freaks. I was first drawn in by the weirdness of their physical forms, but in time I began to appreciate their biographies, the theatrical hyperbole of their public personae, and the hidden society in which they operated and often flourished.
From this study developed my series Prodigies,
portraits of genuine sideshow performers placed within contexts borrowed from art history. Each portrait emerges after researching the performer's history; then, that person is paired with a painting that reminds me of something from their act or biography — or perhaps a gesture similar to the theatrical photos they sold during their shows.
As most of these individuals had unusual anatomies they naturally turn up in medical literature. In fact, showmen often sought out the opinions of doctors in order to increase interest. Consequently, my research often brings me into contact with medical museums. Institutions of this sort owe their beginnings to the tradition of wunderkammern (a Germam name which literally translates to “cabinets of wonder”) in which educated men of means from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment gathered and displayed unusual objects in an attempt to understand and organize the natural world. In time, these collections would be left to universities, or find expression through the so-called dime museums where showmen like P.T. Barnum displayed his human freaks alongside unusual objects.
It is this intersection of traditions that inspired Cabinet of Curiosities. This collection of my drawings, photographs, woodcuts, and etchings documents these objects and seeks beauty within the grotesque. With the permission of museum curators, I have been drawing and photographing these objects in situ and in the process creating a portrait of each collection. The style of
depiction I choose often depends on the context of its museum presentation: sharp clarity that speaks to clinical precision, or the murky gloom of out-dated knowledge and dusty shelves.
Taken as a whole, this body of work is a tribute to those who endured unfortunate medical conditions but allowed their experience to serve as means to understand the causes of their afflictions and help physicians to discover the means by which future generations might be delivered from that misery.
This series is far from finished, as is this website. As time goes on, I will visit new collections, create new works, and write additional essays on particular topics and objects. One of the great advantages of presenting the work online is that the format is malleable and allows the presentation to evolve.