16th biannual conference of the European Association of Museums of the History of Medical Sciences, Berlin

‘The Ruin,’ with a picture of how it looked before it was bombed.

I’ve just returned from my first trip to Berlin, a place everyone who has been will say is wonderful. I wholeheartedly agree. The trip was to attend the best conference I’ve ever been to – it was well-organised, warmly hosted, and included an engaging mixture of enthusiastic discussion, tours of museums, a cruise along the River Spree, and a marvellous mix of venues. The main home of the conference was in the Charite Museum of Medicine, in ‘The Ruin‘:

‘The ruin of the former Rudolf Virchow Lecture Hall, with its historic charm, presents a unique event location that has made for an unforgettable experience for guests from all over the world. The lecture hall of the pathological museum was destroyed toward the end of World War II by bombings. After the war, the building was barely refitted and almost forgotten. Since the middle of the 1990s the “preserved” ruin has been used for formal events, social get-togethers and scientific exchange.’

The conference kicked off with tours of the medical history museum, which has both permanent exhibits as well as special exhibits. The current special exhibit is called ‘Stone,’ (‘STEINE’) and brings together stones from various parts of the world – most especially human gallstones and bladder stones. A fascinating display of these is exhibited in such a way as to make a work of modern art, bringing to mind lentils/pulses/beans, scouring a pebble beach: any number of things before one realises that all of these widely coloured, geometrical objects have actually come from within human bodies.

Stones from within people!

‘Hidden Stories: What do medical objects tell and how can we make them speak?’ This theme struck my interest because of the various object-based workshops I’ve run at the Whipple Museum and elsewhere, such as the Erasmus Darwin House. It also interested me because I am telling one version of a story with ‘Venus Heart,’ my poetry play about anatomical wax models.

It didn’t disappoint. There were hot debates about the very nature of the metaphor ‘do objects speak’? (Well, no, they don’t literally. That’s not the point. That’s why it’s a metaphor.) There were concerns about losing focus on the materiality of an object (a terrible phrase, ‘the thingness of a thing,’ which says nothing – let’s say ‘the materiality of a thing’). Let’s focus on the touch/feel/smell of an object. But what if one (as is most frequently the case) can’t do that? What if we are told not to, not allowed to, or kept apart from the object, and can only look? I begin object-based workshops by simply asking the participants to describe the object in a sensory way – even if they can only look at it. Colour, shape, texture, can all be interpreted through the eyes.

A captive audience?

We heard excellent papers which ranged from discussing the above ideas to hearing individual object stories. The top of a skull told more of a story from being mostly a hole – a tumor had eaten away most of the bone itself. The story was one more of negative space – what we couldn’t see – than what we could.

We enjoyed guided tours of the Anatomical Teaching Collection and listened to lectures in the Institute of Anatomy lecture hall, a grand, creaky wooden amphitheatre with cases lining the back of the room, appropriately filled with skulls.

We were greeted back at ‘The Ruin’ with glasses of champagne, and debate and conversation continued throughout dinner, complete with a musical quartet who played Mozart and Kreisler. The most special part of all was this: as part of our tour of the museum, our lovely guide, Tom, took us through the workshop of his colleague, Navena, who makes waxwork pathologies.

I was very keen to come back and have a longer look, so at the end of dinner (at about 11pm) I introduced myself to Navena and said how much I’d like to see her office again if we had the chance. She said, ‘Why don’t we go now.’ So three of us (one of whom was Joanna Ebenstein of the Morbid Anatomy blog) got to go along for a special, late-night tour…

Some of the workshop inhabitants.

Navena’s office is a wunderkammer of taxidermied animals, pickled foetuses, dried insects, and wax models. She makes waxworks for present-day teaching of medical students, and she makes waxworks for forensic investigation and teaching, such as creating (from the real thing, or from photos,) waxes of suicide cases or murder by hanging, throat-cutting, or gun. She showed us some things which I won’t go into detail over, but suffice to say it was a surreal experience, being in this anatomical theatre, a space which actually is an old dissection room, with marble tables (high-lipped, with drains at the end,) rather tipsy on champagne & wine, being shown these remarkable pieces of craftsmanship and human decay, and indeed, of human dismay.

In the modern anatomical theatre.

Navena opened a through-door and took us into the present-day anatomical theatre, all stainless-steel and halogen lights. Navena herself, I should say, is a beautiful, lean and muscular lady with bottle-bright red hair, who falls into that age group of ‘I have no idea how old she is’ (30s, I’d guess,) with a charming little gap between her front teeth and colourful tattoo on her left bicep. She’s a mixture of shy and sweet and ‘don’t mess with this woman, she could take you down and stuff you’. I asked her how she began making wax models, and she said she learned from an old woman – not many people know the craft now. When we leaned over a plastinated placenta on one of the dissecting tables and asked if it was real, she chirped, ‘Yes – it’s mine!’

I think our nighttime tour was the most special part of the whole trip, and one I’m glad I have photos, because otherwise, I’d have thought it a dream borne of the conference, the champagne, and immersing myself in anatomical models. I’m amazed (though not altogether surprised) that there are still places ‘like this’ (wunderkammer) – but not just ‘cabinets of curiosity’ – actual working spaces – like La Specola’s workshop, small-scale. I might be ringing Navena for the ‘receipt’ (recipe) she was talking about – to make waxworks…

The lovely Navena with her own plastinated placenta. Super!

The following day was a packed with more of the same level of intriguing discussion, also laid out for us in text in a bound book of abstracts. There was a whole panel of talks on wax models, to my delight, including one on the ‘Christus anatomicus,’ or ‘waxwork Christ,’ which had particular relevance to the ‘wax Venus’. I was interested in Shelley McKellar’s discussion of teaching her students in Canada – running workshops using objects – as she mostly teaches medical students, and I’m preparing teaching sessions for Imperial med students, starting next week. I may adopt some of her ideas for the future.

We were treated to guided tours of the Natural History Museum, which houses the world’s largest complete skeleton of a Brachiosaurus, called ‘Oskar,’ and the best-preserved specimen of an archaeopteryx.  In the afternoon, there were two fascinating and unsettling talks about asylums, both old and new, which helped us consider objects in a more broad sense – beyond gallstones and wax models, to bathtubs and beds.

A cruise along the Spree with the obligatory beers and schnitzel (or for those of us who were a wee bit unlucky – they ran out of schnitzel! got pasta instead. Ah well) wrapped up the evening perfectly.

A late-night walk past the Brandenburg Gate.

The conference ended after a morning of talks and thank-yous, and we were free to explore Berlin. As with any good conference, there’s much to process, and I am certain that I’ll be coming back to this material as my writing and teaching progresses. Tom, Navena, their colleagues, and especially Thomas Schnalke, who oversaw the conference and is going to be the next EAMHMS President, should be extremely proud of hosting such a marvellous conference.

Oh yes, and the next EAMHMS conference, in 2014, is almost certainly going to be hosted by the Science Museum in London!

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