MORTALITY AT THE MUSEUM
The Science Museum in London has a whole floor showcasing medical objects, sculptures and artworks that highlight some of the social, psychological and spiritual aspects of death and dying, whilst also illustrating the many different ways human beings have tried to stay healthy and live longer.
Upon entering the first floor gallery, visitors are greeted by the towering 3.5 metre sculpture 'Self Conscious Gene'. The imposing piece depicts Rick Genest, a Canadian model, actor and musician known as 'Zombie Boy'. After being treated for a brain tumour in his youth which led him to contemplate his own mortality, Genest began to cover his body with tattoos of his skeleton and internal organs and ended up with around 90% of his body covered which secured him the Guinness World Record for the most tattoos of human bones. His distinctive looks gained him attention and he featured in the 2011 music video for Lady Gaga's 'Born This Way', appeared in various TV shows, and presented at TedX with a video titled "Normal is an illusion". By bringing his 'insides' outside, he used his body to raise questions of identity and who we, as human beings, may be at our core. Artist Marc Quinn described Rick Genest as "a brilliant crossing point between street culture and science and art" and "a man who had, to his credit, literalised a quest to understand his own body". In 2018, before the sculpture was complete, Genest died after falling over a balcony and onto the pavement below his apartment and so the work now also serves as a memorial to him.
In the surrounding cabinets, the complexities of the human body are explored through a range of anatomical models and photos. A history of anatomy and dissection is presented with the tools of the trade displayed, while a large metal mortsafe brings attention to the antics of body snatchers who were responsible for removing corpses from graves and selling them to medical schools for use in the study of anatomy during the 18th and 19th centuries. Anyone who has visited Edinburgh will likely be familiar with the names 'Burke and Hare' in relation to the selling of bodies. One of the display cases announces that it holds a piece of notorious killer William Burke's brain (Although the information tag wrongly describes him as a grave-robber rather than the plain old serial murderer that he was). Other interesting pieces in the galleries include the world's first MRI scanner, Fleming's penicillin mould, and a trephinated skull from around 2000 B.C.E.
Alongside the scientific and medical displays are items which tell the personal stories of those who have experienced a medical intervention. The thermoplastic mesh mask used to keep a person's head in a fixed position during radiotherapy treatment held a particular interest for me as it reminded me of my mum's mask from her radiotherapy sessions for the treatment of Glioblastoma. Although this mask looked more or less the same as hers, each one is completely unique as they are moulded to fit the exact shape of the person using it. This one belonged to Roger Pebody who was successfully treated after being diagnosed with throat cancer.
'Remember You Must Die'
Despite the advancements in technology and the best efforts of medical staff and scientists, medicine has its limits and this is highlighted further along the gallery where a glass cabinet holds a collection of Memento Mori artefacts which remind the living of the fragility of life.
Turning into the 'Faith, Hope and Fear' section of the galleries, visitors find themselves standing in front of the striking bronze figure of 'Santa Medicina', her arms raised as if ready to conduct an invisible orchestra. In one hand she holds a scalpel ready to cut, in the other are suture scissors ready to sew. Her delicate facial features conceal an underlying strength as she concentrates on the task at hand. Around her waist is a nurse's chatelaine, providing its wearer with other tools she needs to help her patient. The sculpture is intended to be a secular patron saint of medicine and if you look closely you can see that elements of medical science and faith are interwoven throughout the piece (Her rosary beads are also a stethoscope, the halo is also a surgeon's mirror etc.).
'The walls of hospitals have heard more sincere prayers than the walls of churches'.
Within the long gown is a glass case holding a vulnerable looking wax figure under a blanket which provides a visual representation of the helpless feeling when our own health, or that of a loved one, is out of our control and we have to rely on the skills and knowledge of medical professionals to 'fix' things, while also often saying a prayer or pleading to some higher power for help (which is something even those of us who hold no religious beliefs tend to do).
The bronze bell-shaped skirt is adorned with different amulets, with each design apparently inspired by medical items within the surrounding galleries or suggested by a selection of the artist's colleagues and friends. This collective input - along with the fact that visitors are allowed to touch the sculpture - reinforces the concept that death is not just a medical event but also a social one. My own favourite parts of the sculpture are her elbows - one contains the image of a Green Man (a symbol of life) and the other features a skull (or death head). As well as suggesting she holds life and death in her hands, it signifies that life and death are not separate entities but simply two parts of the same process.
The items and artworks within these galleries provide a valuable insight into the human condition and remind us that, despite the scientific breakthroughs that have increased life expectancy for many, death is never too far away. A pair of benches are located next to Santa Medicina and people are encouraged to take a seat and ponder their own mortality for a little while.
Medicine: The Wellcome Galleries @ Science Museum, London
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