Leeds was to be our final excursion out of the North East for medical museum musing. We were excited by the prospect of surfacing the already realised concepts – the ’emotional truth’, literary and visual imaginations, stories from human remains – with the added difference of their context; we were to see no human remains. On the early train to Leeds from Newcastle, we exchanged books – Jim Crace’s ‘Being Dead’ and ‘Inspired? Get Writing!: Further New Poems and Short Stories Inspired by the Collection of the National Galleries of Scotland’ – and discussed our recent creative activity. I always look forward to opening conversations with Eleanor’s daily encounters in the clinic; material for my ever expanding visual repository of medical practice born from my imagination.
First stop, Leeds University where we’d meet Dr Claire Jones (who was due to leave her post as Director of the Museum of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine the very next day!) for a guided tour of the medical collection housed in the grade II listed, art deco Parkinson Building. She invited us into her office where our hands were immediately filled with the pathology paintings of Ethel M Wright, dating from the 1900’s to the 1950’s (the artist produced numerous illustrations for distinguished scientists, including the surgeon Lord Berkeley Lloyd Moyniham and the pathologist Professor Matthew Stewart, both of whom worked at the University of Leeds and the Leeds General Infirmary). Retrieved from standard cardboard boxes, we were invited to hold the works and explore them with tactile curiosity; something Eleanor and I hadn’t been given the opportunity to do with museum objects to date. Perusing through her skillful, delicate paintings of ‘bits and pieces’ of pathological organs, running my index finger across their painterly surfaces, I picture her intently at work, one eye on the diseased specimen, the other on her A5 canvas, concentrated attention on capturing the fleshy tones of abscesses and ulcers. I look over to Eleanor whose stream of questions are leading to answers that are undoubtedly giving rise to poetry or prose.
People. Bodies. Lives lived. Stories.
Claire escorted us to further curated collections of medical objects and comparative anatomy – taxidermy herbivores and skeletal sea creatures – scripting the history of pathology in Leeds and beyond. The store room was to be the place we’d reside, free to explore the collection and rummage through shelf upon shelf, box after box after box of unclassified, un-archived medical wonders. Despite the absence of human remains, bodies were seen, felt and imagined through the tactile study of implements that had once touched, entered and manipulated the flesh, medical photographs and illustrations, microcosmic histopathology slides and patient case notes. Very much like the museums we’d previously visited, the store room was a repository of ‘parts’.
Fragments. Slices. Internal and external. Visual and literary.
Eleanor stumbled across the case notes of a woman ‘…on the occurrence of massive cholesterin deposits in the breast in cases of long standing mastitis’, coupled with microscopic scans of her breast tissue. No larger than A6, these visually arresting slides sat comfortably in the palm of my hands, whilst Eleanor read the physicians observations out aloud. At that very moment, the image and words fused. Procedural descriptions embodied the cosmic aesthetics of the patient’s breast; her womanhood. I picture her laid bare on her back, biopsy implementations severing cells from the tissue of her milk duct that may once have nourished her neonate. Seen or read in isolation – the slides and notes, body and experience – the patient risks fragmentation. Eleanor and I were building bridges, filling in the gaps of bodily and lived experience. An action that stimulated ideas for artworks from the outset.
The medical photographs of small pox were by far the most raw. Captivating and haunting in their visceral aesthetics. The reoccurring questions were verbalised by both Eleanor and I – who are these people? What pain they must have endured?! One description reads:
“Patient suffering from malignant confluent (Dixon’s classification) of the 18th day of the disease. Nearly all cases of this type die at the 12th or 13th day. Very occasionally the patient lingers on in a state aptly described by the older writers as ‘mortification.’ The patient’s skin is to all intents and purposes dead and incapable of reviving and the condition is very similar to that occurring after a severe burn.”
As Eleanor recites this caption, I am reunited with a concept I developed several years ago with the artwork Swallow Triptych (2009), three graphic monochrome drawings of dissected throats. A visual onomatopoeia; the ‘formation’ of an image by ‘imitation’ of a sensation ‘made by or associated with its referent’. Swallow, cough, gulp. In the case of the small pox photographs, we rub and scratch our skin. Similiarly, looking at early medical illustrations of Lithotomy instruments (bladder stone crushers!) entering the urethra of a male through his penis are bound to make one wince, cringe and revolt (BANG, CRASH, WALLOP!) We feel the sensation of what we see. A vehicle for empathy maybe?
Several stereoscope slides and miscellaneous steel instruments later, we break for lunch, continuing conversations about the objects, their origins and the value of hands-on investigations. Next stop was the Thackray Medical Museum to visit librarian Alan Humphries whom single-handedly oversees the acquisition, processing and management of the collections. The library and archive houses a valuable account of the history of medicine, containing both printed material and objects, predominantly examples of surgical instruments. Alan is a charismatic man, with an abundance of fascinating stories and tales under his belt. I had visited Alan many months previous to research for another project and felt confident the library collections were going to stimulate some interesting conversations between myself and Eleanor. We were offered a thorough tour of the printed materials collections, from commercial catalogues to surgical manuals to anatomical atlases, dated back as far as 16th century. Such a richness of history before our eyes and hands! Then a tour of the medical objects collection – a vast storage space filled with operating tables, wheelchairs, x-ray machinery, dentist chairs (and much more!) stretching over centuries, all draped with heavy off-white sheeting like a room ready for renovation. Time sprints by as Alan continues our tour. My hands grow restless as I crave the opportunity to study the objects kinesthetically, at my own pace, in silence, with Eleanor beside me, engaged in the same process. Maybe we had just been spoilt with the luxury of self-study at Leeds University? Or maybe the clock was against us?!
Alan carefully retrieved, unwrapped and presented a brand new addition to the collection, having arrived only the week prior. A surgical atlas by Joseph Maclise (1850-1880). We both sensed Alan’s pride in having this addition in his possession; safely locked in a cupboard, protected from the fate of depreciation. Maclise’s illustrations had a great impression on both Eleanor and I, with their delicate hand colouring and elegant expressions of cadaveric specimens, pictured with entrail spillages in graceful poses. They were certainly unique to anything I had ever seen before. Who were these people that Maclise anatomised? I think how cool it would be to write a story about their fantastical lives in this book; of what they get up to when the bound cover is closed and returned to the locked cupboard. What of their playful selves, revealing the wonder and mystery of their innards with pride and superiority. This is me, a visual artist, playing around with prose, satisfied at that moment with written language, trusting the word.
The hours where against us, and we barely had 10 minutes to explore the rows and rows of drawers within the mechanical shelving bays, each filled with categorised implements and instruments that examined, held, secured, pulled, twisted, punctured, cut, sliced, cracked, constricted, lengthened, sutured parts and parts and parts of the human body. We had ran out of time. The objects left untouched, unhandled, unobserved. So many images and stories left unimagined and untold. This absence (or perhaps presence) was engaging in itself, and I found myself reflecting on the history of the personal (and universal) medicine that remains out of our sights, and how indeed, one would engage with these objects and concepts given the chance.
Leaving the collection, we head for The Tetley (a new centre for contemporary art and learning in the city centre) to meet a friend who is currently artist in residence at the centre. Aidan Moseby http://aidanmoesby.co.uk is no stranger to artistic collaborations and has a social engaging practice with an interest in “the relationships between people and place through the distillation of intimate, often concealed histories”. It wasn’t long until our conversations turned to unpacking the concept of ‘collaboration’ through sharing our own experiences of working with others outside of our immediate artistic terrain. The problematic areas, the struggles, the triumphs and achievements. It was a wonderful way to end our day; a celebration of our revelations so far, with exciting, prosperous times ahead. Eleanor and I are natural collaborators!
In a weeks time, I will have attended the conference ‘Collect, Exchange, Display: Artistic Practice and the Medical Museum’ at the Hunterian Museum, The Royal College of Surgeons (6th June) http://artisticpracticeandthemedicalmuseum.wordpress.com/ on behalf of our collaborative project, and attempted to condense my findings in order to report back to Eleanor on our next visit – Newcastle Medical School.
Our time together is nearing its end…