A roundtable discussion on the ethical, legal and aesthetic challenges of exhibiting anatomical materials, with curators Katie Birkwood (Royal College of Physicians), Nathan Flis (Yale Center for British Art) and Annette Wickham (Royal Academy of Arts), moderated by Keren Hammerschlag. The discussion took place on 5 December 2019.
Exhibiting anatomical material—from preserved human remains to illustrations of the inside of the human body—in museums and galleries inevitably requires careful ethical, legal and aesthetic considerations on the part of curators and other museum professionals. During the nineteenth century, human dissections generally took place in medical institutions behind closed doors. But dead bodies and body parts continued to be displayed, including in anatomical and ethnographic museums. In the name of science, the bodies—especially skulls—of individuals of different ‘races’ were collected, transported and displayed in museums around the world. One need only think of the well-documented and particularly tragic case of Sarah Baartman, the so-called ‘Hottentot Venus,’ who was paraded around Europe as a live exhibit and then dissected, preserved and displayed after her death. Some bodily remains have been repatriated; others have not. Today, controversy rages over the popular Body World exhibits, which showcase plastinated corpses positioned in a variety of poses. In the case of Body Worlds, the display of dead and preserved bodies is claimed to be educational. However, as a commercial enterprise, the exhibits sit at the uncomfortable intersection of anatomy, art, commerce, education, morbid curiosity, and popular entertainment.
This roundtable discussion seeks to examine some of the issues faced by museum curators who work with anatomical material. Nathan Flis became interested in the history of anatomy while studying images of the human brain by Christopher Wren as part of a Masters in the History of Medicine at McGill University in Montreal. As Head of Exhibitions and Publications and Assistant Curator of Seventeenth-Century Paintings at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, USA, he co-curated William Hunter and the Anatomy of the Modern Museum (The Hunterian, University of Glasgow, 27 September 2018 – 6 January 2019; Yale Center for British Art, 14 February – 20 May 2019; fig.1). This landmark exhibition featured the anatomical preparations, natural history specimens, ethnographic objects, works of art, and coins and medals, which began its life as the private teaching collection of William Hunter (1718–1783), the Scottish-born physician and obstetrician, and the first Professor of Anatomy at the Royal Academy of Arts, England.
Approaching anatomical objects from an art historical perspective, Annette Wickham’s interest in anatomy and art education developed while she was researching the drawings collections at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. The Royal Academy holds significant groups of anatomical drawings, in particular those by George Stubbs, Benjamin Robert Hayden and John Flaxman. As Curator of Works on Paper at the Royal Academy, Wickham curated Daniel Maclise: The Waterloo Cartoon (Royal Academy, 2 September 2015 – 3 January 2016) and The Anatomy Professor: Doctors, Death and Dining at the Royal Academy (Royal Academy 18 January – 17 March 2019). She has also been involved in the project of moving three historical écorché figures that were part of the art school collection into the main public thoroughfare of the Royal Academy (fig.2).
Katie Birkwood came to work with anatomical publications via her expertise in librarianship. Her initial interests in medieval manuscripts and early printed books led her to take up the position of Rare Books and Special Collections Librarian at the Royal College of Physicians in London. She recently curated Under the Skin: Anatomy, Art and Identity at the Royal College of Physicians (10 October 2019 – 3 April 2020, extended to December 2020; fig.3), which features drawn and printed anatomical illustrations dating from the 15th to 20th centuries displayed alongside contemporary artworks in various media (paper, textile, glass, ceramics and video). The exhibition encourages viewers to consider the technological, ethical and emotional dimensions of the representation of human anatomy for teaching, research and entertainment.
Keren Hammerschlag: To all panellists, how have you found the experience of curating shows about anatomy in the context of the different institutions in which you work?
Nathan Flis: With the William Hunter and the Anatomy of the Modern Museum show there was a difference of opinion, at least among the Yale Center for British Art staff, about what kinds of exhibitions we should pursue, and what kinds of materials we should display. Internally, the Hunter exhibition had a controversial edge. It wasn’t your standard paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings show. At the same time, it stood in the line of ground-breaking projects that have drawn together the material strands of art, science and medicine—from Mrs. Delany and her Circle (2009-10) to Endless Forms (2009) to Enlightened Princesses (2017), and more recently, The Paston Treasure (2018), which was the first exhibition I co-curated at the YCBA (in collaboration with the Norwich Castle Museum). Most of these exhibitions had multiple lenders and a wide variety of objects, which complicated display requirements and conservation concerns.
For Hunter, there were controversial aspects pertaining to the display of certain objects or bodies that we sought to confront. At the heart of the exhibition was a display centred around Hunter’s medical atlas, The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus (1774). The Gravid Uterus exhibited the gestation (and stage-by-stage dissection) of the human fetus in lifelike detail, like no publication before it. Twenty-four years in the making, the book’s descriptions and illustrations were based on the dissection of the bodies of thirteen unidentified women and their unborn children. Our display included the formative materials for Hunter’s project: preparatory drawings, proof plates, and a polychrome plaster cast (one of eleven such casts that survive at Glasgow, which enabled the preservation, in three-dimensional form, of the stages of dissection; see fig.4). Given the graphic nature of these materials and their problematic histories, we anticipated a lot of strong reactions among our visitors. This display therefore required a lot of intensive discussion and careful planning with exhibition and graphic designers, our Education and Communications Departments, and with partners in the wider New Haven and Glasgow communities.
Keren Hammerschlag: William Hunter and the Anatomy of the Modern Museum is not necessarily what one would expect from a show at the Yale Center for British Art.
Nathan Flis: The Center’s collections are predominantly built around works of art from the long eighteenth century acquired by Paul Mellon. These include an important group of paintings and anatomical drawings by George Stubbs. Stubbs and his studies of the animal emerged from the same world, and the same ethos—for all its problems—as William Hunter and his collections. There is a profound historical relationship between the practice of anatomy and the making of art during this period, which the objects in the Hunter exhibition brought to the fore. Juxtapositions of anatomical preparations and works of art by old masters like Rembrandt and by contemporaries of Hunter such as Stubbs, William Hogarth, and James Barry evoked in a powerful way the aesthetics and materiality of knowledge production and pedagogy at this time in history.
The exhibition was a good fit for the Center for these reasons: the complementary nature of the collections, the potential dialogue between them. Our exhibition also told the story of the genesis of the first public teaching museum, based on Hunter’s expressed wish. The Center is just such a teaching museum, with its deep roots in the history of institutions like Hunter’s. We were privileged to be able to work with our colleagues at The Hunterian, to make possible the display of the core of its founding collection in North America for the first time.
Keren Hammerschlag: Moving from the Yale Center for British Art to the Royal Academy of Arts, Annette, have you found it easy or difficult to display anatomical art produced by students in the Royal Academy Schools?
Annette Wickham: A lot of visitors are in the building to see the art exhibitions and are not necessarily aware of the history of the Academy or even that it has an art school. The Royal Academy’s new campus opened in 2018, with a link between Burlington House and 6 Burlington Gardens that takes visitors through the Royal Academy Schools. The Collections displayed in this area focus on the Academy’s original / historical approach to teaching drawing. There are plaster casts after classical sculptures and there are life drawings; we wanted to add anatomy to that, and it all fits—but only if you know something of the history. William Hunter was appointed Professor of Anatomy at the Royal Academy when it was founded in 1768 and promoted the practice of art students learning from dissection and from casts of real bodies, a tradition that continued to some extent over the following centuries. There was concern, though, that in a space like that, where visitors might just be walking through, whether the interpretation, which is necessarily quite limited, would be sufficient to make clear why these fairly gruesome casts made from the flayed bodies of executed criminals are popping up on the wall of an art gallery (see fig.2).
Katie Birkwood: At the Royal College of Physicians it is completely the other way up. A lot of people come to our building expecting us to be like the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London, which is full of pathological specimens in jars. But we at the Royal College of Physicians don’t have anatomical or pathological collections. The only human remains we have on display are seventeenth-century anatomical tables, which look more like drawings than they do remains. In a way, the anatomy exhibition feels completely natural in the space, and one of my concerns as a curator has been that sense of expectation—that people come expecting some kind of grotesque or gory experience and I am not necessarily comfortable with the idea of a freak show for people to look at, of all these innards gratuitously on display.
As a professional membership body, our primary audience are the physicians who are our Fellows and Members. Though they do not make up the highest proportion of our exhibition visitors, they are undoubtedly the core of the RCP’s function and purpose. They necessarily have an intimate knowledge of anatomy, and bring a very different perspective to the images. They are more concerned about what is right: is this anatomically accurate or not? Have we described it properly in our captions? They strip out any kind of other sensibilities you might bring to it—art historical sensibility or any other kind of thinking behind it, historical context—and they are just interested in: is this a good picture of this part of the body?
Keren Hammerschlag: Nathan, I am assuming that there were some strong reactions to the Hunter show.
Nathan Flis: Overall, responses we had from those who visited the exhibition were positive and reflective. Some reviews mentioned that certain displays were ‘not for the squeamish.’ But the strongest reactions had come during lead-up, as we planned for the exhibition. At New Haven, we convened round table discussions about the display of the most graphic materials: those related to the making of Hunter’s Gravid Uterus, especially the plaster casts (fig.4). We invited staff from the Center, representatives from the Yale Schools of Medicine, Nursing, and Midwifery, the Medical Historical Library, History (including the History of Science, Medicine and Public Health), History of Art, the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program, the Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, the Peabody Museum of Natural History, the Yale University Art Gallery, and partners from the wider community, including Artspace New Haven and Nasty Women Connecticut (a platform for community-building and activism through the arts).
Our discussions were intense, challenging, and illuminating. There were concerns that the display would be voyeuristic in its intent; there were expressions of anger and disgust. At the same time, there were expressions that were unfazed, acknowledging the importance of seeing the casts, understanding their history, and not hiding them. Recommendations included presenting visitors with some kind of warning, using appropriate language in our didactics, acknowledging the violence involved in dissection and in making the drawings and casts—particularly the violence enacted upon dead bodies in an age before medical consent or the concept of medical ethics, and in a century when patriarchal domination over the female body was a norm in the medical profession. Once the exhibition was open, we invited the same colleagues, students, and members of the public to further discussions, this time among the displays. These conversations were very powerful and thought-provoking in their differences of opinion, and, to my mind, they once more justified the exhibition and the display of the most sensitive materials.
Keren Hammerschlag: What was the difference between exhibiting one plaster cast and five?
Nathan Flis: A colleague from the Yale University Art Gallery thought that if we showed any of the casts (and especially a large number of them), it would be the only thing that you would remember coming out of the exhibition. It would be such an overwhelming experience. Another comment came from a colleague at the Yale Medical Historical Library, wondering if Hunter himself would ever have condoned showing to the general public some of the most graphic materials that we were intending to display. Both of these comments struck a chord with me and influenced the decisions we finally made to reduce the number of casts in the Center’s exhibition. Whereas we had originally planned to display five casts as The Hunterian did, we ultimately decided to show only one.
Keren Hammerschlag: Katie, you saw the Hunter show in Glasgow. Tell us about your reaction.
Katie Birkwood: Like Nathan says, at Glasgow five anatomical casts of the Gravid Uterus were shown on freestanding plinths, with around two dozen of the drawings and proof prints from The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus (1774) around the wall. If you have five casts in a room like that, that is your overriding memory. And I remember it as more than five. If you had asked me I would probably have said eight, because it felt like a lot. It was amazing to see the casts alongside the drawings, to see those different ways of showing the body. It really made me think about the way we react to things and the level of remove you have from drawing as compared to something three dimensional, because the casts being life-size and coloured and something you can walk right round is such a different experience. It’s much more visceral and more emotionally affecting. Seeing the casts helped to clarify for me some of the real differences in these different ways of communicating the body.
Annette Wickham: I didn’t show the Gravid Uterus in the exhibition The Anatomy Professor: Doctors, Death and Dining at the RA because it turned out that the Royal Academy Library didn’t have it! I had assumed that it was in the Collection, as Hunter was a big presence at the Royal Academy and there are various other items in the Collection relating to him, but not that book, presumably because it would have been of no direct use to art students, despite being produced to high aesthetic standards. In the display I wanted to look at the different approaches to anatomy for artists, so it didn’t make sense to borrow a book that he apparently did not use here.
Keren Hammerschlag: Katie, what led you to decide to include contemporary art in Under the Skin?
Katie Birkwood: We wanted to explore emotional and ethical questions in more depth: who are the people in the pictures? Should we be showing their pictures? And how would they have felt about it? How do we feel today when we see pictures of our bodies with our medical technology being so advanced? The anatomical images themselves speak to all of these issues, but don’t do it explicitly. They don’t address the issues of identity; they are mostly white healthy young men, which says something when you see them en masse, but it doesn’t address it explicitly. So we decided to approach contemporary artists to suggest works of theirs that would express these themes—of race, gender, conformity and consent—more openly. They were displayed with the historical pieces to encourage people to reflect more deeply on the historical images and what’s in them and what isn’t in them. And to say, ‘it’s okay to have an emotional response to these.’ Not to think, ‘well, they are medical images so I am supposed not to feel disgusted or not to feel sympathy.’
Nathan Flis: The inclusion of contemporary art in the Hunter show distinguished our exhibition from Glasgow’s. Similar to what Katie has mentioned, the contemporary works in our exhibition helped us to bring the historical materials into conversation with contemporary (ongoing, or even timeless) issues. In the same space as the cast and preparatory drawings and engravings and the copy of the Gravid Uterus, we had works by four contemporary artists: Selva Aparicio, Claire Barclay, Nate Lewis and Maya Vivas. Barclay’s work (commissioned by The Hunterian) was the only direct response to the historical material in the exhibition; she was pushing back on Hunter’s uncompromising empiricism—his all-seeing gaze—with her incredible prints. The works by Aparicio, Lewis and Vivas all spoke to issues of identity, the gender of bodies, and sexual orientation, thinking broadly about the way bodies are used and exposed across time and delving into philosophical questions about the nature of life and death, what happens to our bodies after we die, and so forth. We consciously chose not to include anything especially jarring or violent so that this part of the exhibition would be a moment of clear communication and also one of reprieve and calm after you experienced the violence of the eighteenth-century material.
Keren Hammerschlag: What challenges have you faced in terms of the exhibition of art that grapples with anatomy and medicine?
Nathan Flis: The drawings for the Gravid Uterus publication, especially those made by Jan van Rymsdyk and Alexander Cozens, and the engravings, more readily than the plaster cast, qualified for visitors to the Huntershow as ‘art.’ They seemed to bother very few people—that is, the drawings and engravings as opposed to the plaster cast—perhaps because they were understood as preparatory for, or part of, Hunter’s published work. On the other hand, many people saw the plaster cast as a surrogate for the actual dissected body of a woman and her unborn child—not as a sculpture, but as a body itself (or bodies themselves). But it’s more complicated than that. Explaining the complicated nature of what people were actually looking at and seeing in the cast was an incredible challenge. Hunter himself wrote that the casts were made as an act of preservation—in Hunter’s day, there was no way of preserving entire bodies, or parts of bodies of that size. In other words, the casts served as—and still are—surrogates for real bodies—and are, by necessity, works of artifice. They were made piecemeal, the parts cast from life, assembled into something like a sculpture, and then the whole painted to look lifelike. There was a lot of technological analysis undertaken on the casts at Glasgow—ultrasound, paint sampling—in preparation for the exhibition. The surfaces, it was found, were over time chipped, worn, or had become dusty through use, over some 200 years, as teaching aids, so that the casts came to be painted and repainted over time. What you may perceive with all this repainting is, by comparison to the neat drawings and engravings, a crude object or mutilated body. I think a lot of these complex physical realities influenced how people perceived and experienced the casts.
Keren Hammerschlag: Now I want ask all three of you about what you feel as curators are the key ethical considerations that need to be accounted for, and what is entirely off-limits—if anything—when it comes to showing these objects to the public?
Nathan Flis: These are difficult questions. With controversial displays involving materials that are judged to be sensitive or graphic, there’s always somebody who is going to object. But when we start to think about ethics, it’s crucial to ask the following questions: does the educational benefit of the display outweigh the potential emotional distress caused by that display? Why was that object or body made, or preserved? What context do the objects or bodies come out of? What trauma or memory of trauma might the display elicit? Admittedly, considering what to display and how to display it is a very subjective exercise. It should always, I think, be designed so that you are warned about the parts that might be difficult ahead of time, and so that you have a way around those parts if you so choose.
Your question about what should be off limits is even harder I think, and I can only answer it generally. My mind automatically turns to human remains. In my opinion, the following should be off limits: anything specific (I think specificity is an interesting concept), i.e. specifically identifiable or readily recognisable, in the way of human remains. Anything of relatively recent provenance—this is going to be very controversial, but I’m thinking here in contrast to the routine display of mummified remains, or religious relics. Obviously off limits are human remains where the culture of the person does not permit such display; it’s not our place to disagree with someone’s wish or cultural belief, where the display of such remains isn’t wanted. Neither should we display remains in cases where the person’s death resulted from persecution or violence. Again, that’s where the question of specificity arises again. Problematically, we don’t always know what led to a person’s death whose remains we are displaying. Lack of specific knowledge in some cases actually makes possible the display of certain remains, though this lack of knowledge is also the source of controversy, and maybe the reason why we choose not to display other remains. I believe that this was one of the most contentious issues with respect to the display of the plaster cast in Hunter.
Annette Wickham: I would agree with most of what Nathan said. Generally, at the Royal Academy, we haven’t had to deal with these issues because we’re looking at drawings, we’re looking at plaster casts of bodies; we’re not looking at human remains. But, there are grey areas, as the écorchés are easily mistaken for actual human remains. The stories behind them are also quite challenging. While we were preparing the écorché display, Frances Osis, a PhD candidate at Glasgow, got in touch to share her research, which suggests that the polychrome écorché in the Royal Academy Collection (fig.5) is very probably the one made from the body of Solomon Porter, a Jewish executed thief. Porter’s trial was well-known at the time. During the dissection, Hunter removed the penis from the corpse and preserved it as a specimen because it had signs of an STD. It is still in a jar in The Hunterian. We briefly considered asking to borrow it to display with the écorché because the story was so interesting, but in the end decided not to because it is the remains of an identifiable human being and would have been inappropriate in a public thoroughfare in an art gallery rather than as part of exhibition specifically about this subject. The other thing that occurred to me was that, while we’re moving towards being more cautious about displaying anatomical items, it was ironic that we were thinking about these issues when upstairs at the Royal Academy there was a Bill Viola exhibition, which featured a huge video of a woman giving birth, and on the other side a huge video of a woman dying. I suppose the big difference there is consent, but it seems that with contemporary art, people who opt to go to the exhibitions are ready to be confronted by potentially shocking imagery.
Keren Hammerschlag: What is the role of contemporary art when thinking about bodies, anatomy, and the ethics of display? To offer calm contemplative spaces for ethical consideration and thought? Or to solicit strong responses, which are deemed okay because it’s contemporary art?
Katie Birkwood: Not all the contemporary art in Under the Skin was intended to be contemplative; some of it was intended to shake things up. By introducing contemporary art into a display at the Royal College of Physicians, we tried to signal to our visitors that the exhibits are something that you can have strong reactions to, and this is a space where being shocked might be expected. The artworks encourage a response in a way that the medical images—whether they’re considered to be art themselves or whether they’re seen as technical images—don’t necessarily encourage. But the concept of emotional distress that Nathan raises is really interesting. I agree with pretty much everything that we’ve been saying, but I’d like to pick up on the issue of balancing educational value against emotional distress because I don’t know if emotional distress, or potential for emotional distress is always the marker I would be using to determine what’s appropriate. If we take Annette’s example of the écorché, if someone’s upset by seeing the écorché thinking it is somehow a preserved human specimen rather than a cast, does that change the way we should display the écorché or talk about it? I’d say maybe not. I would be concerned if we were displaying human remains or images that were considered unethical, and using the justification that no-one is upset by them.
Keren Hammerschlag: To wrap up, I would be keen to hear if you have any projects in the works. Or projects in this area that you feel need to be undertaken.
Annette Wickham: Now that we have the probable names of the people whose bodies the three main écorchés at the Royal Academy were made from, I would like to fill in a bit more detail about exactly why they ended up where they did, how they were made, and how these objects were viewed at the time. It would also be great to bring all of the Royal Academy anatomical collections together at some point and to include contemporary material, although there are no plans for this at the moment, sadly.
Nathan Flis: I am working on an book focused on Francis Barlow, the most famous painter of birds and animals in the British Isles in the seventeenth century. In general, I think there could be more work done on the historical representation of animal bodies, and the complicated relationship between the animal and the human.
Katie Birkwood: Absolutely. One of the issues we skate around all the time when we’re talking about people from the Royal College of Physicians’ history, especially William Harvey, our most famous Fellow, is vivisection. We say ‘William Harvey discovered the circulation of the blood’; what we never say is ‘he discovered it by vivisection.’ He was cutting up live animals as well as dead people; he was doing vivisection; he was doing vivisection for an audience. It’s something that we shy away from saying because I think we’re aware that it could cause much more furor than anything we’d say about the way human bodies have been treated.
 For discussions of dissection during the nineteenth century see: Ruth Richardson, Death, Dissection and the Destitute (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000); Michael Sappol, A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in Nineteenth-Century America (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001); Helen MacDonald, Human Remains: Dissection and Its Histories(New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005); J. H. Warner and James M. Edmonson, eds., Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine 1880-1930 (New York: Blast Books, 2009); Ross L. Jones, “Cadavers and the Social Dimension of Dissection,” in Sarah Ferber and Sally Wilde (eds), The Body Divided: Human Beings and Human “Material” in Modern Medical History (Farnham, Surrey and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011), 29-52.
 Nicholas Hudson, ‘“The Hottentot Venus,” Sexuality, and the Changing Aesthetics of Race, 1650-1850,’ Mosaic 41 (2008): 19-41; Deborah Willis, ed., Black Venus 2010: They Called her ‘Hottentot,’ (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010); and Kara Reilly, ‘Two Venuses: Historicizing the Anatomical Female Body,’ Performance Research 19 (2014): 111-121.
 Roslyn Poignant, Professional Savages: Captive Lives and Western Spectacle (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004) and Cressida Fforde, Collecting the Dead: Archaeology and the Reburial Issue (London: Duckworth, 2004).
 For critiques of the Body World exhibits on ethical grounds see: Y. Michael Barilan, ‘Bodyworlds and the Ethics of Using Human Remains: A Preliminary Discussion,’ Bioethics 20:3 (2006): 233-247; and the International Federation of Associations of Anatomists, ‘Ethical and Medical Humanities Perspectives on the Public Display of Plastinated Human Bodies’: https://www.ifaa.net/committees/ethics-and-medical-humanities-ficem/ethical-and-medical-humanities-perspectives-on-the-public-display-of-plastinated-human-bodies/
 Martin Kemp and Nathan Flis, ‘Mapping the cerebral globe,’ Nature 456 (2008): https://www.nature.com/articles/456174a
 William Hunter and the Anatomy of the Modern Museum was accompanied by a publication of the same title: https://britishart.yale.edu/publications/william-hunter-and-anatomy-modern-museum.
 Glasgow’s contextual exhibition of contemporary art, including the commission from Claire Barclay, was staged concurrently in another gallery at The Hunterian.